Jon-Tomas Godin

Schubert and Sonata Rhetoric

One explanation for the decline of sonata form in the 19th century involves the perceived paradigm shift from the rhetorical to the organicist metaphor of musical form. Compounding the problem is the fact that recent theories of sonata form tend to focus on Classical style compositions and implicitly conceive of them from a rhetorical standpoint. Two approaches, the form-functional and the hermeneutic classify and explain features of Classical style, and provide models for explaining the compositional choices underlying this formal design, yet provide little explanation for the evolution of the form in the 19th century.
This paper addresses changes in sonata aesthetics and composition through the lens of Schubert’s late quartets and sonatas. While this repertoire, in many ways caught between the two aesthetics, is the focus of much analytical inquiry, key features of Schubert’s formal designs have yet to be explained from the perspective of this aesthetic duality.
To begin, the paper problematizes the rhetorical/organicist duality by recasting these aesthetic paradigms as analytical biases. Key features of both aesthetics are in fact identifiable to varying degrees in many repertoires, both earlier and later than Schubert. Changes in aesthetics, while impacting upon compositional styles at some level, therefore seem mainly to affect perception. Consequently, evolutions in design require a different explanation. To this end, the paper identifies several strategies Schubert uses to alter form-defining areas of sonata movements. These strategies are creative reappropriations of Classical gestures, deploying a new rhetoric to suit new aesthetic purposes. Some of Schubert’s strategies, such as cadential deviation, are common even in his predecessors, yet the new context subtly shifts their meaning; other strategies, such as disarticulation and projection of constituent elements of a form-defining process, are newer. In either case, these strategies demonstrate the continuity between Schubert’s style and that of his predecessors.