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Definition and Ambiguity: Finding Two Dimensions in Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor

Definition and Ambiguity: Finding Two Dimensions in Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor

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Liszt’s treatment of Sonata form is innovative and enigmatic. This essay aims to elucidate some of the most influential analyses of the B Minor sonata, and to assimilate those analyses. The Sonata is also considered within its historical context and within the context of Contemporary sonata theory.
Liszt’s treatment of Sonata form is innovative and enigmatic. This essay aims to elucidate some of the most influential analyses of the B Minor sonata, and to assimilate those analyses. The Sonata is also considered within its historical context and within the context of Contemporary sonata theory.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Part One 
Contexts and Concepts: Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor as a Solution to the Sonata Problem.
Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is a seminal work of the nineteenth century. Liszt’streatment of the form is innovative: starkly contrasting with the clear structure of atextbook, or 
 Formenlehre,
sonata form. As such, it has attracted prolific analyticalinvestigation. The aim of this essay is to elucidate and elaborate upon some of themost influential analyses of the sonata, and to assimilate those analyses, in an attemptto bring Liszt’s structural process into clearer focus. In order to do this, the sonata will be placed within the context of sonata form as viewed at the time of its composition.Contemporary sonata theory will also be discussed, along with the factors it brings to bear on the concept and status of Liszt’s treatment of sonata form in this work.The Sonata in B Minor was completed in February of 1853.
1
By that time,sonata form had come through a transition “from a loose, casual concept of a free,even a fantasy, form to a tight, fixed concept of a highly specific form, specificenough to crystalize in the textbooks”
2
. The beginnings of this precisely codifiedtheory of sonata form first appeared in treatises by Reicha (1826), Marx (1837-47)and Czerny (1848-9).
3
Robert Schumann perceived many of the sonatas being published at the time as “studies in form”
4
and suggested that the form was losing itsheralded position in the compositional repertoire.
5
The following statement from aletter to Louis Köhler would seem to suggest that the sonata as “mold”
6
wassomething which Liszt was determined to avoid:
 Forms
were too often changed byquite respectable people into
 formulae”.
7
 
During this period of concentration oncomposition in Weimar, Liszt was addressing what he referred to as the ‘symphonic problem’. Kenneth Hamilton suggests that “the ‘symphonic problem’ […] could
1
 
Kenneth Hamilton,
 Liszt: Sonata in B Minor 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), p. 1.
2
William S. Newman,
The Sonata since Beethoven 3
rd 
ed.
(N.Y. & London: W.W. Norton & Co.1983), p. 27.
3
James Webster, ‘Sonata Form’ in Stanley Sadie ed
., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and  Musicians
Vol. 23 (London: Macmillan 2001), p. 697.
4
Newman,
The Sonata since Beethoven
, p. 38.
5
Ibid., p. 39.
6
As according to William S. Newman’s definitions of sonata forms, Ibid., p. 110.
7
Hamilton,
 Liszt: Sonata in B Minor 
, p. 9.
1
 
 perhaps be better described as the ‘sonata problem’ that [Liszt] addressed pianisticallyin the Sonata in B minor.”
8
Thus the Sonata in B Minor may be viewed as one of Liszt’s solutions to the problem of form, or perhaps more correctly, the problem of thedevelopment of the form, and the avoidance of epigonism.At the time of its composition, debates between schools of thought(“progressive” and “conservative”) encompassed not only opposing aesthetics, butalso stances in the debate on sonata form. James Webster posits the two strains as“Romantic” and “classicizing”.
9
He also states that “only the latter tradition gavesonata form much prominence”.
Liszt, generally considered a “progressive” or “Romantic”, would presumeably be considered by Webster to have given little prominence to the form in his compositional outlook. This would not seem to be thecase. The use of sonata form in the Sonata in B minor, the symphonic poems, andeven the études for piano (some of which are written in “innovative sonata formsstrongly influenced by Beethoven”
) are cases in point.A number of the readings of the Sonata in B Minor have been programmatic innature. It must be noted here that Liszt gave no indication that the sonata was programmatic,
 and considering the large number of expressly programmaticcompositions among Liszt’s output, there would appear to be no reason as to why hewould not have explicitly attributed a programme to the sonata.
This has led themain analysts to be considered by this essay, namely Newman, Longyear,Winklhofer, Hamilton, and Vande Moortele, to reject programmatic possibilities intheir analyses, which proceed on purely musical terms.In fact, the most influential analyses of the sonata are theory-based.One difficulty in the analysis of sonatas from the nineteenth century arises from thefact that sonata theory, which has its beginnings in the aforementioned compositionaltreatises, advances an image of the form which is
 prescriptive
rather than
descriptive
.It is important to note that a question thus arises as to whether or not a structuralframework put forward (in sonata theory contemporaneous to the composition) as a
 prescriptive
possibility can be used as a
descriptive
analytical tool for a sonata which
8
Op. cit., p. 7.
9
 
Webster, ‘Sonata Form’, p. 695.
10
Ibid.
11
Hamilton,
 Liszt: Sonata in B Minor 
, p. 4.
12
Ibid., p. 28.
13
Ibid., p. 29.
2
 
expressly deviates from that framework ,
and further, whether or not the result of thatdeviation substantiates a
revolution
or an
evolution
of form.In the most recent addition to sonata theory literature,
 Elements of SonataTheory: Norms, Types and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata
,James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy describe five types of sonata form. The typeunder which Liszt’s sonata may seemingly be posited, the “normative sonata” (type3), does not include the possibility of a ‘double function’
 or ‘two-dimensional’
sonata form, in which first movement form (exposition, recapitulation etc) and sonatamovements (first movement, finale etc) occur concurrently. This is the form in whichall but one of the present analysts agree the Sonata in B Minor was composed.According to Hepokoski and Darcy’s theory then, the sonata would be consideredwhat they have termed a “deformation”.Hepokoski, in his introduction to
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
states: “To perceive many modern works appropriately we should not try to take their measurewith the obsolete ‘sonata’ gauge […] but rather to understand that they invokefamiliar, ‘post-sonata’ generic subtypes that have undergone, in various conbinations,the effects of differing deformational procedures.”
Although the Sonata in B Minor is not modern in a historical sense, many of the subtypes referred to by Hepokoskiwere being experimented with at the time of its composition, indeed, it may itself beone. The notion of a double function or two dimensional form as a deformation isconfirmed by Hepokoski by being placed in the list of deformation families under thecategory of “multimovement forms in a single movement”
. Before leaving this point, it may be observed that although Hepokoski acknowledges that it would beanachronistic to gauge a nineteenth or twentieth century sonata form using the
 Formonlehre
sonata type as an analytical tool, it could be suggested that it may alsoanachronistic to refer to what might be considered ‘new’ sonata types emergent in the
14
 
Vande Moortele confirms Liszt as “a progressive composer from the second half of the nineteenthcentury who had the ambition of modernizing sonata form” in
Two Dimensional Sonata Form
, p. 67.
15
 
The term as suggested by Newman (1972), in which each section (exposition, development etc)functions simultaneously as both an element of ‘first movement’ form, and concurrently as an elementof a multimovement work.
16
The term as suggested by Steven Vande Moortele in his doctoral dissertation
Two Dimensional Sonata Form in Germany and Austria Between 1850 and 1950: Theoretical, Analytical and Critical  Perspectives
(Catholic University Leuven 2006), pp. 13-44, in which each section may have a doublefunction or may function
either 
as an element of the ‘first movement’ form
or 
an element of themultimovement work.
17
James Hepokoski,
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993), p. 5.
18
Ibid., p. 7.
3

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