Yoel Greenberg

On the Origins of the Recapitulation: A Corpus-Based, Bottom-Up Approach to Musical Form

Musical form is usually viewed through the lenses of ‘top-down’ approaches, which explain formal elements as the result of an overarching logic. Such approaches are valuable when attempting to reach a synchronic understanding of a given form, but have limited ability to explain how form arose in the first place, and how it developed over time.

This research demonstrates the value of a bottom-up approach to musical form in explaining the evolution of the recapitulation in sonata form. Drawing from a corpus of 732 binary form instrumental works between 1650–1770, I will demonstrate that the recapitulation arose from the interaction between mutually independent local formal elements, with an overarching organizing logic emerging only at a later stage. In particular, I will examine three sonata elements pertaining to melodic repetition:

(1) The medial repeat: repeat of opening theme at double bar

(2) The double return: tonic return of opening theme in the middle of the second half

(3) The end rhyme: thematic correspondence between the ends of both halves

In so doing, I shall demonstrate that their appearances are statistically independent, with sonata form thus explained as the result of the chance interaction between formal elements, resulting in a ‘bottom-up’ model of the rise of the recapitulation. Thus, elements of the recapitulation were not, at first, governed by a rotational logic, serving instead as local formal markers. In a broader sense, this bottom-up model accounts for the rise of complex forms without theoretical guidance. It also leads to a more dynamic understanding of form than the stable notion behind ‘top-down’ models: no longer subject to a single unifying logic, elements may contradict one another or even ‘compete’ over inclusion in the future formal package, resulting in an understanding of form as an unstable and problematic set of conventions.