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Metric Manipulations in Haydn and Mozart: Chamber Music for Strings, 1787-1791.

Metric Manipulations in Haydn and Mozart: Chamber Music for Strings, 1787-1791. By Danuta Mirka. (Oxford Studies in Music Theory.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, [xv, 332 p. ISBN 9780195384925. $55.] Illustrations, music examples, facsimiles, bibliography, indexes.

Danuta Mirka has produced an ambitious book that seeks to combine disciplines whose triple union would have seemed improbable some decades ago. Admittedly, music theory and cognitive psychology will not seem unlikely bedfellows today, but the author's scrupulous account of late-eighteenth-century metric theory provides her discussion with a "historically informed" air that should appeal to readers otherwise but moderately invested in bar-by-bar analysis of individual works. While the resulting discussion, may at points seem eclectic, the author argues that the tools for metric analysis developed by American theorists in the past decades are eminently compatible with the approach of eighteenth-century writers, and so the combination of these fields is no arbitrary act but rather the realization of an inherent kinship, indeed, most of Mirka's theoretical sections could be described as "sorting out" the analytical toolbox developed primarily after Fred Lerdahl's and Ray Jackendoff's A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (Cam-bridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983) with an eye at historical music theory. In this regard, Metric Manipulations in Haydn and Mozart exemplifies--if not pioneers--a sort of "synthetic analysis" that should hopefully prove an inspiration for theorists in other areas as well.

The book takes its illustrations from a rather narrow repertory that includes the string quartet collections op. 50, op. 54-55, and op. 64 by Haydn, and the "Prussian" Quartets, String Quintets K. 515, 516, 593, and 614, and Divertimento for String Trio K. 563 by Mozart. While this selection docs not provide cogent examples for each and every phenomenon discussed, Mirka proposes that the typically Kenner audience of string chamber music prompted Haydn and Mozart to apply especially refined metric strategies precisely in these genres. Besides, for one reason or another, Haydn's exploration of metric manipulations reached its peak in his final pre-London years, and his work seems to have become a source of inspiration for Mozart as well--in this light, the chronological boundaries 1787-91 seem wholly meaningful. Finally, the illustrations taken from these works prove all the more appropriate in that a considerable part of this repertory has called forth thoroughgoing analyses that Mirka can draw on to highlight the slight but important differences between modern analysts' metric perception and that of late-eighteenth-century listeners.

The volume consists of eight chapters, the first of which adumbrates the theoretical framework, describing in detail the relevant literature (both historical and modern) and the author's readings of it. Chapter 2 examines the ways an imaginary listener (whom Mirka consistently associates with the pronoun "she") may recognize the proper meter at the beginning of a piece, and how the composer (invariably mentioned as "he") may deceive her in this respect. Chapter 3 goes a step further and investigates the musical events that may challenge the meter established earlier, and the following three chapters identify the diverse types of "changing meter" in the course of a given movement. While the above sections at certain points inevitably seem like minute pigeonholing, chapter 7 offers two ease studies (detailed analyses of the opening movement of Haydn's op. 50, no. 2, and the finale of his op. 55, no. 2) that illustrate how all the phenomena discussed earlier may participate in realizing long-range metrical strategies. In conclusion, chapter 8 again seeks to step beyond the usual boundaries of music theoretical monographs, and provides a brief outlook on the role such metric manipulations play in the personal styles of Haydn and Mozart.

Ironically, it is precisely in this "more than analytic" conclusion that Mirka's narrative seems the least satisfactory. While the reader will inevitably have the impression that this book--somewhat in contrast to its "coauthored" title--is primarily about Haydn (even though with numerous references at Mozart), the concluding interpretation of virtually all of Haydn's metric manipulations as exemplifying his comic vein seems reductive. To be sure, to refer to Haydn's "humor" in this context is certainly justified, but, as the discussion proceeds, humor gets increasingly equaled with simple parody, and mockery--as if each of Haydn's metric tricks should necessarily be read as evoking the bungling of a beginning composer, the incompetence of folk-band musicians, or the clumsy moves of confused dancers. This unavoidably perpetuates the stereotype of Haydn being a "mere jokester"; the more so, since at the same time Mozart's metric manipulations are being read in general as signs of a "more intellectual wit" (p. 305). Besides, as Mirka herself admits in her "inconclusive conclusion," one will be curious to learn to what extent the findings of her study may-hold true for other quartet and quintet composers of the time, or for works by Haydn and Mozart in other genres. In these regards, the volume is more a "call to arms" for other music theorists than a comprehensive account of meter in the classical period (not that the title would have promised that).

Rather than stressing the possible shortcomings of the fifteen-page-long concluding chapter, however, one should celebrate the impressive analytical and theoretical insights presented in the first three hundred pages of the book. Mirka is successfully walking the hue line between "hardcore" analysis, cognitive psychology, and thorough exegesis of eighteenth-century treatises, and the resolutely "common sense" theoretical conclusions she arrives at after combining them seem convincing throughout. (To mention but one example, the author's modeling the "finding of meter" as a series of three accents--the first two generating a "projection," and the third fulfilling it--could not be more simple, but proves highly insightful in the discussion of several later examples.) Even more importantly, Mirka's analyses are much more than rigid applications of the foregoing theoretical insights, thanks primarily to her keen interest in the "musical surface"; the direct aural experience of the listener. At the same time, she is also aware that the musical background of the imaginary audience would have a strong bearing on their metric perception--due to this, her interpretations of the most complex passages aim less at determining a single "correct" reading than at identifying the competing metric cues, thus helping the reader appreciate precisely the ambiguity of such moments. For this reason in particular, one wishes this volume could break through the borders not merely between music theory and historical musicology, but also between musicologists and performers: it should be delightful to experience in actual quartet performances the sensitive musical interpretations the volume offers.


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Author:Mikusi, Balazs
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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