Julian Horton

Topic Theory and the Analysis of 19th-Century Music

The analyst seeking to extend the application of topic theory from its traditional 18th-century home into the 19th century encounters significant challenges. Although the classical lexicon manifestly endures, changes of social and philosophical context imbue persisting topics with fresh significance. Responding to these shifts, 19th-century composers also evolved new topical styles, which provided the rhetorical apparatus for conveying novel social and aesthetic messages. Thus, although we might agree with Kofi Agawu’s assertion that “the Romantic period may be understood … as an incorporation of classical protocol into a still more variegated set of Romantic discourses”, it is worth stressing the twofold dialectic inherent in this progression, between old and new topics on the one hand, and between old and new uses of persisting topics on the other.
This paper offers a case study in the difficulties of applying topical analysis to 19th-century music by appraising the issues surrounding the application of one novel type (the nocturne) as a style in an inherited classical form (concerto first-movement form). I sketch the problems of defining the nocturne as both type and genre, and elaborate instances of its generic migration in concerti by Field, Chopin and Schumann, paying special attention to relationship between topical discourse and formal articulation. Early-19th-century attempts to absorb the nocturne style into the concerto’s topical lexicon impact directly on the development of formal conventions. Thus Field and Chopin both reference the widespread tactic of delineating solo first-theme continuation function by shifting from bravura to nocturne styles; and the first movement of Schumann’s Op. 54 follows Field’s Seventh Concerto in interpolating a nocturne episode as the development pre-core.