Patterns and topics as elements of signification in late eighteenth-century music

Authored by: Lauri Suurpää

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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In the second half of the eighteenth century, communication was considered one of the cornerstones of music signification. Conveying precise and preferably conceptual meaning was viewed with such importance that many writers judged vocal music to be superior to instrumental music. Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s famous remark “sonate, que me veux-tu?” (sonata, what do you want of me?), circulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, epitomized this view; in Bonds’s reading (2014, 74–77), Fontenelle’s comment reflects the frustration over not understanding what music without words can mean. Yet at the same time, there were authors who sought to describe ways in which instrumental music could convey signification, albeit without a conceptual foundation. This essay examines two ways in which late eighteenth-century musicians addressed non-conceptual layers of music signification, layers that apply to instrumental as well as to vocal music: musical expression and musical grammar.

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