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Desiring closure, yearning for freedom: a semiotic study of tonality in three symphonies by Carl Nielsen

(PhD. Thesis, University of Manchester 2004)

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Abstract

Desiring closure, yearning for freedom explores Carl Nielsenís powerful and idiosyncratic engagement with tonality. The analytical case studies of three Nielsen symphonies are motivated equally by a desire to gain a fuller understanding of the composerís expressive deployment of contrasting tonal idioms and by an interest in the mechanisms of tonal signification. To this end, there are two theoretical starting points: Heinrich Schenkerís powerful model of tonality and Eero Tarastiís adaptation of the French-Lithuanian semiotician Algirdas Julien Greimasís work on narrative.

After some preliminary theoretical orientation, analyses of Beethovenís First and Fourth Symphonies are used to introduce some of the main principles of the semiotic description of tonal structures that forms the methodological heart of this dissertation. This provides the foundations for analyses of Nielsenís First, Second and Fourth Symphonies, each of which introduces new methodological and epistemological challenges: the study of the First Symphony gives rise to speculation on the significative potential of Nielsenís so-called Ďprogressiveí tonal structures; The Four Temperaments provides an opportunity to explore how music is able to portray character and disposition, building on Greimasís work with Jacques Fontanille on the semiotics of passions; finally, an analysis of the expressive extremes of The Inextinguishable builds on the work of previous chapters in order to explore how Nielsen pushes towards the boundaries of tonality in various ways, at the same time as continuing to write music of the utmost diatonic simplicity. This polarised tonal palette is symptomatic of a productive tension in Nielsenís music between, on the one hand, a desire for the release of normative tonal closure, and, on the other, a yearning for freedom from the constraints of the major-minor system.




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