Danuta Mirka

Topics and Meter

The connection between topics and meter was established by Wye Allanbrook. In her seminal book Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (1983) Allanbrook observed that in the 18th century individual meters carried affects associated with specific styles and genres. She supported this observation with references to 18th-century authors. All of them represent the tradition of metric notation descending from the mensural system of Baroque music in which meter was closely related to tempo, affect, and genre. In the late 18th century this tradition was continued by Johann Philipp Kirnberger who posited a ‘natural’ tempo for each meter: the so-called ‘tempo giusto’.

But, as noted by Allanbrook, the compositional practice underwent an important change between the Baroque and Classic eras. Whereas Baroque composers used one affect for an entire movement, Classic composers began to shape each movement around several affects, which necessitated the choice of a time signature suitable for several meters. This practice was related to another tradition of metric notation, not discussed by Allanbrook, in which time signatures had no tempo significance and no affective implications. In Germany it was represented by Joseph Riepel, Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, and Heinrich Christoph Koch. In this tradition the choice of meter was guided by neither tempo nor affect but by convenience. While this pragmatic attitude enabled 18th-century composers to include several topics in one piece, it complicates the task of the analyst by making identification of topics contingent upon identification of the composed meter and, in some cases, upon analysis of phrase structure. I will demonstrate this in relation to the main theme of the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, K. 550. What I intend to show through my analysis is that topic theory cannot dispense with historical music theory which — among other things — includes the theory of meter.