[AN OVERALL SOUND PROCESS] Altered Dynamics and Instrumentation at the Onset of Recapitulation in the Nineteenth-Century Symphony

Steven Craig Cannon


In standard sonata form, the onset of recapitulation exactly quotes the beginning of the exposition, preserving both “structural” parameters (melody, rhythm, harmony, key), as well as “secondary” ones (dynamics, instrumentation, register, tempo). In practice, however, composers may alter any aspect of the main theme upon its return. Most analysis of such recapitulatory alteration has focused on structural change, with other parameters receiving relatively little attention.

This paper examines composers’ handling of two secondary parameters—dynamic markings and instrumental density—at the beginnings of recapitulations in the nineteenth-century symphonic repertoire. In order to analyse a large number of works, a system of classifications for recapitulatory alterations is necessary. The alterations fall into four broad types: “similar” recapitulations have few or no changes to dynamics and instrumentation, “intensified” recapitulations are louder or more fully orchestrated than the beginning of the exposition, “attenuated” recapitulations have quieter dynamics or sparser orchestration, and “contradictory” recapitulations have alterations to dynamics and instrumentation that work in opposite directions. After explaining this classification system in detail, with examples from specific symphonies, the paper then gives the results of an analytical survey of 483 sonata-form movements from 282 symphonies dating from the years 1800 to 1899. Similar and intensified recapitulations are most common, with preferences changing over time. Until about the 1840s, similar recapitulations were most common, but from around the 1860s on, intensified returns became the default choice. Attenuated and contradictory recapitulations, by contrast, are very rare throughout the century.

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