This June, two of our own SMR members presented at the thirty-second annual conference of Music Theory Midwest. On Thursday, June 10th, Anna Rose Nelson presented a paper entitled “‘Non multa, sed multum’: On the Category of Webern’s ‘Miniature’”, followed on Friday by Carlos Alberto Pérez Tabares, presenting “A Female Pastoral: Northern Italian Ballade as a Topic in Primo Ottocento Opera”. We caught up with both of them to ask some questions about their papers and about the conference, which they graciously entertained. See below for their answers and abstracts. Congratulations, Carlos and Anna!
What was the most interesting question you were asked?
Carlos Pérez Tabares: Prof. Olga Sánchez-Kesielewska asked about the relationship between what I formulate as the ballad topic and a similar, earlier tradition of portraying operatic choirs of priestesses. Admittedly, I was unaware of this and found it fascinating, especially as one operatic number that I consider paradigmatic of the ballad topic (“Casta Diva,” from Bellini’s Norma) is indeed described as a choir of priestesses in the libretto.
Anna Rose Nelson: Near the end of my presentation, I highlighted some of the things later modernist composers like Stravinsky and Dallapiccola said about Webern’s early “miniature” works. One attendee asked what the aesthetic implications of the frequent use of terms like “crystalline” and “diamonds” might have been. These descriptors are certainly evocative, but the specifics are hard to put into (other) words! I’ll certainly be thinking about this as my work progresses.
What about your presentation did you feel went well?
CPT: People seemed to be very receptive of my ideas and, according to what I hear, they enjoyed my articulation of different approaches (folk song, landscape ideology, gender, and topic theory) in order to formulate theoretical insights.
ARN: I put a lot of effort into the timing and the visual aids for my pre-recorded presentation, and I was pretty happy with the final result (even though it went around a minute over the 20-minute time limit).
What about your presentation did you feel could have gone better?
CPT: Timing continues to be an issue in my presentation. Hopefully, with time and experience, I’ll learn to refine and condense the way in which I present my ideas.
ARN: Thanks to the 20-minute time limit on our pre-recorded presentations, I didn’t have time to play any music or get into any technical analysis. I wish I had—these works are fascinating!
Did you get to meet any personal scholarly heroes?
CPT: Although some scholars I admire and respect attended my session, we ended up going overtime so there wasn’t much time for more “informal” socialization. However, I was glad to see and get questions from Prof. Sánchez-Kisielewska, whom I met last year and who had motivated me to take the topic-theory approach for this paper.
ARN: I try not to view scholars as “heroes,”—we’re all just normal people doing research and I never want to have a “never meet your heroes” kind of moment—but I did make a really nice connection with a composer/theorist from CUNY doing work with Kurtág’s “fragments” and “aphorisms.” Matthew Sandahl sent me one of his compositions—a set of “miniatures” for string quartet written in response to Webern’s—and I’m looking forward to learning more about his work!
Were there any logistical aspects of MTMW that you appreciated in particular? Any tips for those who might submit abstracts in the future?
CPT: My session chair and monitor were incredibly helpful. I truly appreciated that they were thorough in their communications and walked me through this whole process. Also, I enjoyed how the online format allowed me to read/watch other presenters’ submissions on my own time!
ARN: Because MTMW is a conference for theorists, it seems that they really appreciate detail-oriented analytical scholarship.
Anna Rose Nelson, “Non multa, sed multum”: On the Category of Webern’s “Miniatures”
The Webern “miniatures”: this term pervades public understanding of the modernist composer and a specific subset of his atonal works. Contemporary composers cite them as inspiration for their own aphoristic works; they’ve spawned a compositional movement. But what is a Webernian miniature? How did the terms “miniature” or, similarly, “aphorism,” become so ubiquitous, and how do they influence our understanding of Webern’s works and those that follow their example?
Webern’s biographers casually singled out four works—op.7 (1910), op.9 (1911/13), op.10 (1911/13), op.11 (1914): Kolneder (1968) called them “instrumental miniatures,” Forte (1998) described them as the “aphorisms,” and the Moldenhauers (1979) hailed them as “the consummation of striving for the utmost concentration of substance and form.” Yet none of these authors define nor substantiate their use of these terms. In this paper, I reclaim “miniature” and “aphorism” as they relate to Webern’s oeuvre. Through musical and primary-source analysis, I argue that these miniatures represent the beginning of a trend of modernist aphorisms. To do so, I dispel the myth that “miniature” is a durational label, separating these from Webern’s other, famously brief music. I reconsider the miniatures’ forms, showing that none of the pieces or collections share any formal pattern. Finally, I show evidence that the miniatures were once grouped under a single opus number (then, op.7, 1—4).
By reclaiming terminology surrounding Webern’s “miniatures,” this paper sheds light on the category and provides an analytical foundation for later works following the paradigm: what I call the “modernist aphoristic aesthetic.”
Carlos Pérez Tabares, “A Female Pastoral: Northern Italian Ballade as a Topic in Primo Ottocento Opera”
Scholars like Roberto Leydi (2003) suggest that the presumption of Italian folk influences in primo ottocento opera is risky, to say the least. Other critics, however, have historically identified similarities between folk genres and opera numbers. Francesco Degrada (1977), for example, mentions how parallel thirds sung by women’s choirs, pervasive in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, remind him of Northern Italian folk music. What he calls “typically Po-valley” thirds are described by Tullia Magrini (1995) and Ignazio Macchiarella (2001) as a hallmark of Northern Italian ballads, which were traditionally sung by women. This parallelism seems even more striking considering Emilia Branca’s 1882 account of Bellini’s trip to Moltrasio before writing La Sonnambula, in which he allegedly collected themes sung by peasant women. In light of these and other Italian commentators’ recognition of their soundscapes in opera (see also Scherillo 1882; Pastura 1959; and Confalonieri 1968), I propose that Northern Italian ballads, in particular, may be identified as a topic—a musical style or genre used outside of its original context (Mirka 2014). I discuss how this topic may have been consolidated as a byproduct of the wane of pastoralism in nineteenth-century Italy, within what Denis Cosgrove (1985) calls “landscape ideology.” Drawing from Emanuele Senici’s (2005) research, I argue that gender relations added to the meaning of ballads in opera. Finally, I examine the musical features of the ballad topic—including what, after Magrini (1995), I call the MAGRINI closing schema—, its placement within the lyric form, and its signification.
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