Vasili Byros

Mozart’s Ironic Mask: Topics and Harmonic Schemata in the ‘Haffner’ Symphony

Topics and harmonic schemata powerfully interact in the late-18th-century communicative channel. My contribution in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory illustrates a categorial and pragmatic interfacing of the two domains in Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, where a particular schema, the le–sol–fi–sol (Byros 2012, 2009), enables the communication of a powerful philosophical message involving the spiritual consequences of suffering, self-sacrifice, and death. The le–sol–fi–sol, as an instance of harmonic grammar, is closely related to an ‘ombra’ topic with mortal, funereal, and sacrificial connotations. As a hybrid symbolic structure, the schema–topic amalgam is the basis for establishing a number of correlations of oppositions in the structural and expressive domains of the symphony, which communicate a ‘tragic-to-transcendent’ expressive genre and the cultural unit of ‘abnegation’ (Hatten 1994).

In this talk, I explore the broader communicative implications of the ‘Eroica’ case study with a complementary case study that dwells on Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony, K. 385. The symphony, as is well known, was commissioned by the Haffners in Salzburg for the ennoblement of Wolfgang’s childhood friend Sigmund in 1782. An interfacing of topics and harmonic schemata suggests a subversive and ironic narrative in its first movement, with Mozart mocking the Salzburg nobility with which he was discontent for not acknowledging his musical abilities. Just a few years earlier the Prince of Salzburg “declare[d] that [Mozart] knew nothing and . . . ought to betake himself to some conservatorio of music at Naples”. A syntactic and form-functional climax in both the exposition and recapitulation of the ‘Haffner’ is accompanied by a “marked” (Hatten 1994) change of topos — an ‘ombra’ topic carrying morbid and funereal connotations. I read this gesture as a metaphor for Mozart’s views of the musical world run by the aristocracy: artistically lifeless and fossilized.