Pianto as a topical signifier of grief in contemporary operas by John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Kaija Saariaho

Authored by: Yayoi Uno Everett

The Routledge Handbook of Music Signification

Print publication date:  March  2020
Online publication date:  March  2020

Print ISBN: 9780815376453
eBook ISBN: 9781351237536
Adobe ISBN:


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This essay explores the pianto figure as a topical signifier in contemporary operas composed by Thomas Adès (b. 1971), Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), and John Adams (b. 1947). Building on writings by Raymond Monelle and Vladimír Karbusický, it begins with an overview of the historical contexts in which the pianto emerged as an expressive signifier of grief. I argue that the pianto’s topicality is established through its alliance with existing topics in late-Baroque and classical repertoire and through another schematic context that evolved in the nineteenth century. Distinguishing between three style types of pianto (some affiliated with existing topics and others that are not), I then analyze excerpts from contemporary operas by Adams, Adès, and Saariaho, and situate them within a corpus of dramatic works by late-modernist composers who adopt and expand the pianto’s topical and intertextual scope in line with operatic conventions from the past.

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