Rebecca Thumpston

The 'Feel' of Expansion: Embodying Musical Growth

In ‘Anatomy of a Gesture: From Davidovsky to Chopin and Back’, Patrick McCreless examines the composite gesture that constitutes the climax of the first section of Mario Davidovsky’s Electronic Study No. 1 (1960), a four-part gesture comprising a “high-register crescendo with an increase in activity, precipitous plunge, low-register crash, and rebound” (2006: 11). McCreless highlights not only the universality of the gesture (found in a variety of works and styles, stemming from its history in the Romantic piano literature), but also its physicality: for McCreless, it is the gesture’s physical nature – understood through embodied imagination – that makes it so compelling.
In a similar vein to McCreless, this paper will examine a specific musical gesture: that of musical growth or expansion, experienced as bearing volitional agency. The sense of a musical ‘lift-off’ is a powerful, physical sensation, existing across a range of styles and genres. Recognizing first the long history of scholarship on issues of growth and organicism, this paper will identify and theorise the goal-directed teleology, and subsequent resolution, of examples such as the openings of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Further examples examined may include the anticipation forged through musical expansion in Ravel’s Bolero and in the second movement of Lutosławski’s Second Symphony. The paper will analyse and theorise the musical mechanisms that enable growth to be embodied in the mind and body of the listener, and also examine, in line with scholarship by authors including Naomi Cumming, Robert Hatten and Matthew BaileyShea, the manner in which this growth – experienced as a bodily sensation – is projected onto figurative, agential bodies in the music.