Playing with Signs

Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music

V. Kofi Agawu
Copyright Date: 1991
DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn
Pages: 166
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvttn
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  • Book Info
    Playing with Signs
    Book Description:

    Of all the repertories of Western Art music, none is as explicitly listener-oriented as that of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet few attempts to analyze the so-called Classic Style have embraced the semiotic implications of this condition. Playing with Signs proposes a listener-oriented theory of Classic instrumental music that encompasses its two most fundamental communicative dimensions: expression and structure. Units of expression, defined in reference to topoi, are shown here to interact with, confront, and merge into units of structure, defined in terms of the rhetorical conventions of beginning, continuing, and ending. The book draws on examples from works by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven to show that the explicitly referential, even theatrical, surface of Classic music derives from a play with signs. Although addressed primarily to readers interested in musical analysis, the book opens up fruitful avenues for further research into musical semiotics, aesthetics, and Classicism.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6183-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.1
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.2
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-x)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.3
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-2)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.4
  5. ONE INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-25)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.5

    How do composers reach their audiences? If we accept as valuable the traditional distinction among composers, performers, and listeners—roles that are not mutually exclusive of one another—then we might say that the search for an answer to this question forms an essential component of the activities of various musicians, irrespective of their individual callings as historians, theorists, analysts, and critics. The subject is just as relevant today as it was in 1781 when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, writing to his father from Vienna, described in fascinating detail the composition of portions of his operaDie Entführung aus dem Serail.¹...

  6. TWO EXTROVERSIVE SEMIOSIS: TOPICS AS SIGNS
    (pp. 26-50)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.6

    In chapter 1, the concept of topic was introduced by a quotation from a letter of Mozart’s to his father, which included references to “Turkish music.” Later, we cited Ratner’s analysis of the introduction to the “Prague” Symphony, which included references to “singing style,” “sensibility,” “fanfare,” “ombra,” and several other referential signs. I suggested at that point that it might be better to grasp the broad outlines of Ratner’s analysis than to worry about the particular labels that he applies to those changes of musical texture. In this chapter, I should like to embrace the notion of topic head-on, and...

  7. THREE INTROVERSIVE SEMIOSIS: THE BEGINNING–MIDDLE–END PARADIGM
    (pp. 51-79)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.7

    In the previous chapter, I argued that Classic music is nominally referential, and that referential signs, far from being merely surface elements, do in fact sustain structural procedures on a deeper level. I suggested that a fluid structural rhythm is operative in the background, and that a succession of individual topical essences results in a scenario whose coordinates can be accommodated along the axis of this rhythm. Referential signs, however, form only one class of signs in Classic music. There is another class consisting of what we might call “pure” signs, signs that provide important clues to musical organization through...

  8. FOUR A SEMIOTIC INTERPRETATION OF THE FIRST MOVEMENT OF MOZART’S STRING QUINTET IN C MAJOR, K. 515
    (pp. 80-99)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.8

    The aim of this chapter is to provide an interpretation of the first movement of Mozart’s C Major Quintet, K. 515, drawing on the interpretive strategies and analytic tools introduced in preceding chapters. What formal constraints regulate the basic utterance of the piece? Is the musical surface value-free or is it laden with signification? In what terms is the tonal argument conducted, and what is the nature of the relationship between this argument and the signifying processes of the musical surface? How, in short, does the movement mean?

    The formal argument of this movement is conducted within the constraints of...

  9. FIVE A SEMIOTIC INTERPRETATION OF THE FIRST MOVEMENT OF HAYDN’S STRING QUARTET IN D MINOR, OP. 76, NO. 2
    (pp. 100-109)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.9

    In developing a semiotic analysis of the first movement of Mozart’s C Major String Quintet, we relied on the dual framework of extroversive and introversive semiosis. The underlying assumption of that discussion was that there are, on one hand, events that can be characterized in terms of a value-laden surface saturated with stylistic signifiers, and, on the other hand, events that, while not nonreferential, disclose their secrets in specific reference to conventions of grammar and syntax. To what extent does this distinction apply to the first movement of Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 2, and what is the nature of the...

  10. SIX A SEMIOTIC INTERPRETATION OF THE FIRST MOVEMENT OF BEETHOVEN’S STRING QUARTET IN A MINOR, OP. 132
    (pp. 110-126)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.10

    The interpretations offered in the two preceding chapters were directed more toward method and individual illumination than toward a broader stylistic synthesis. In turning to Beethoven, our aim will be to use the same technical apparatus to forge an interpretation in which traditional questions of style occupy a central place. This more explicit engagement with style is motivated by the fact that the String Quartet Op. 132, composed in 1825, although it lies within the chronological limits set at the beginning of this book (1770–1830), belongs to that much-discussed—and supposedly enigmatic—late period of Beethoven. A necessary part...

  11. SEVEN TOWARD A SEMIOTIC THEORY FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF CLASSIC MUSIC
    (pp. 127-134)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.11

    The aim of this chapter is to summarize the theory that underlies the interpretations developed inductively in preceding chapters. Interpretive theories of music generally resist formalization, so that in an important (i.e., nontrivial) sense, the concerns of this chapter must be seen to renounce any claim to comprehensiveness or ultimate truth. Some aspects of music analysis are easier to formalize than others, but the degree to which a particular theory can be formalized may have no bearing on the value that it holds for musicians. Various ad hoc invocations, for example, may appeal on the basis of their rhetorical power...

  12. EIGHT EPILOGUE: A SEMIOTIC INTERPRETATION OF ROMANTIC MUSIC
    (pp. 135-144)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.12

    The view of a synchronic Classic style, which has been treated as an axiom in the foregoing pages, is of course a simplification of historical reality. As more than one commentator has pointed out, our arbitrarily imposed chronological limits, 1770–1830, are exactly that: arbitrary. The Classic style did not die in 1830; nor was there an inaugural ceremony for Romanticism in the same year. And yet the opposition between Classic and Romantic persists among music historians. The implied separateness from Classicism, however fragile a concept, appears to be a necessary aid to historical understanding.¹

    What exactly is the nature...

  13. REFERENCES
    (pp. 145-150)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.13
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 151-154)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7zvttn.14