Stock Musical Phrases

The music theorist Robert Gjerdingen has been pushing his theory of schemata or stock musical phrases since the 1980s, but it was only with his delightful compendium in 2007 (Music in the Galant Style) that he truly became a household name for musicologists. While analyses of eighteenth-century masters like Haydn and Mozart can get away with avoiding specialized or complex theories, schemata hit a sweet spot of simplicity and specificity that makes them difficult to ignore. I’m bringing them up for two reasons here. They will be the first proper musical topic in my attempt to link musicology with Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. (Chapter 3, following two chapters introducing OOO ideas and methods.) I’ve also recently gotten stuck while working on the preceding chapter about how OOO pans out in methodology, and I’m hoping this post will help joggle me forward.

Schemata in galant music (such as Mozart) are basically just two-part progressions containing around four or so events and lasting for a fair chunk of a musical phrase (a few seconds). If we take Mozart’s famous “easy sonata” K. 545 as an example, the first two measures comprise what Gjerdingen would call an opening gambit. It has just three events. The top part goes from the first scale degree (the tonic or “1”) to the leading tone right below it and back again: 1-7-1. The bottom part goes 1-2-1. In the two bars right after that, Mozart presents the single most typical galant riposte to an opening gambit, which Gjerdingen calls the “Prinner.” Here, the top voice descends stepwise 6-5-4-3 and the bottom voice descends in parallel, 4-3-2-1. Then he simply repeats it in a stretched-out version (four bars) followed by a cadence on the dominant or fifth scale degree. So the opening phrase goes opening gambit, Prinner, Prinnnnnner, cadence.

Cadences have long been recognized as stock gestures, but Gjerdingen’s work is crucial for describing and labeling the vast occurrence of similar formulaic elements elsewhere in musical phrases. In the background to his project is a critique of the idealized view of the artist (or the good one anyway) as a savant who is “liberated” from practical and social imperatives, a view which often goes together with the old assumption that artistic ideas arise from a primordial access to noumena or a welling-up of subjectivity. If you associate this critique – plus the notion of conventionalized schemata – with the art historian Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion), then you win the prize! Gjerdingen’s earliest writings acknowledge Gombrich’s influence.

More foregrounded in Gjerdingen’s recent work (including his 2007 classic) is his critique of music theories that would, in his view, wrongly apply modern musical habits to the analysis of past music. He claims modern listeners have become “less sensitive” to the established models of galant music, and his not-so-subtle implication is that we can finally gain access to ancient ears with schemata. “[C]ognizance of the Prinner and other similar patterns need not be irretrievably lost. We can, through an archaeology of musical utterances, dust off the galant schemata and listen to what they have to tell us about this courtly mode of musical thought” (59).
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