Dissertation Index

Author: Donaldson, James

Title: Topics, Form, and Expression in the Music of György Ligeti and Thomas Adès

Institution: McGill University

Begun: September 2016

Completed: May 2021


This dissertation combines traditional music-theoretical
approaches with theories of reading in literature to develop a method for an understanding of the significance of topics in music of the late twentieth century. One of the most widely applied aspects of musical semiotics, topics are defined as conventionalised musical objects with easily recognizable musical features, such as the Chorale, Lament, and Hunt. So far, this theory has primarily been applied to music of the eighteenth century. I develop its observations to detail the role of these standardized musical objects in the works of György Ligeti and Thomas Adès from the 1990s and 2000s. Building on the semiotic and literary theories of Hjelmslev (1943), Greimas (1966), and Eco (1984), I show how the interactions of topical characteristics can constitute the foundation of a work’s form, defining a hierarchy of topical presence (the Elementary, Intermediate, and Actant levels). Adopting the concept of isotopy from literature, I temporalise this hierarchy, demonstrating how a topic’s lower-level characteristics appearing earlier in a work can project a later realisation of the full topic.

Chapter 1 outlines previous theories and applications of topic theory and details how they can be adapted to later twentieth-century music. Drawing upon theories developed by Hjelmslev and Greimas, Chapter 2 outlines a hierarchy of topical specificity which, through adapting the term isotopy from literary theories of Greimas and Eco, Chapter 3 temporalises. Through applying these principles, I show how a Lament appears with increasing strength in Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, only appearing in full in the final bars, and how the overlapping characteristics of the Chorale and Sound Mass topics point to two different topical paths in Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto. Chapter 4 expands from a single topic to model the interaction of multiple topics in Topical Networks. Through analyses of Adès’s Still Sorrowing and Ligeti’s Horn Trio I show how the identification of different topics can create diverging conceptions of formal relationships through the listeners’ prioritising of different musical relations. For example, a listener may identify inherited topics (e.g. Lament and Hunt) based upon their familiarity with canonical works, or may focusing on newer signs (such as a Sound Mass topic, with its associated imagery developed in Ligeti’s writings, for example (see Wilson 2004)).

Chapters 5-6 apply these principles to long-form analyses of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (1992) and Adès’s Living Toys (1993). The latter applies mathematical group theory to show how the harmony of five topics can relate. Depending on the topics identified, I demonstrate how two different understandings of the harmony can be constructed. Chapter 7 returns to the historical concerns of Chapter 1. A more speculative chapter drawing upon contemporary theories of the function of signs in architecture, film, and literature, I show how this approach models an aesthetic that is part of broader trends in the later twentieth century.

This study is the first to explore the ramifications of the flourishing sub-discipline of topic theory to late twentieth-century music, adapting traditional post-tonal music-theoretical techniques in detailed musical analysis. Given topic theory’s social, cultural, and political
concerns—indeed, William Caplin calls it ‘one of the success stories of modern musicology’ (Caplin 2005)—this approach has the potential to widen discussion on the role of signification and meaning in late twentieth-century music.

Keywords: topic theory, semiotics, literary theory, isotopy, transformational theory, György Ligeti, Thomas Adès



Pt. I - Theory and Methodology

1. Musical Topics into the Late Twentieth Century

2. A Hierarchy of Topical Characteristics

3. Isotopy

4. Topical Networks

Pt. II - Analytical Essays

5. Intertextuality and Parody in Ligeti's Violin Concerto

6. Living Toys in Thomas Adès's Living Toys: Transforming the Post-Tonal Topics

7. Multi-Coding, Form, and Troping in Thomas Adès's Piano Quintet




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