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Society for Music Theory

You Reap What You Sow: Some Instances of Rhythmic and Harmonic Ambiguity in Brahms
Author(s): Peter H. Smith
Source: Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 2006), pp. 57-97
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society for Music Theory
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4499848
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Tou Reap WhatYouSow. Some Instances of Rhythmic


and HarmonicAmbiguity in Brahms*
PETER

H. SMITH

Of all composers of the common-practice era, perhaps none has been associated with musical ambiguity more than Brahms. Several recent essays nevertheless question the usefulness of ambiguity
as an analytical concept. This article defends the efficacy of ambiguity through analysis of metrically and harmonically bivalent passages from the composer's C-minor Piano Quartet, Double
Concerto, Clarinet Trio, G-major String Quintet, and B-minor Rhapsody. The analyses proceed
from contradictory readings of opening materials to later statements that develop precisely those
characteristics that give rise to the initial double meaning. In each case, the result is an enormous
tonal delay whose resolution corresponds with liquidation of the contradictory characteristics, as
the movements finally achieve the clarity absent from their ambiguous openings.
Keywords: Brahms, Ambiguity, Metric displacement, Linkage technique, Sonata form

the concept as an analytical category. Carl Schachter, for


example, argues that "[i]t is just as much a part of the composer's art as it is of the sculptor's or painter'sto be able to

INTRODUCTION
ERHAPS NO COMPOSER of the common-practiceera is
associated with the idea of musical ambiguity more
than Johannes Brahms.1 Even a cursoryglance at any
contemporary Brahms bibliography reveals citations that
make reference to the topic. Several recent explorations of
ambiguity nevertheless call into question the usefulness of
*This essay is dedicated to the memory of John Daverio, David
Epstein, and David Lewin.
In this regard, David Epstein's view is representative:"Perhaps no composer of the period so reveled in the structural possibilities of ambiguity
as did Brahms." (Epstein 1979, 162) Charles Rosen is even more forthright: "More than any other composer, Brahms exploited the possibilities of overlapping sections, the ambiguities of the boundaries of sonata
form." (Rosen 1988, 395) Notions of ambiguity even appear to have influenced biographical perspectives on the composer, leading Karl
Geiringer among others to identify psychological ambivalence as a driving force behind Brahms's personality and behavior. (Geiringer 1990)

create clear and distinct shapes; the more clearly and vividly
the listener perceives these shapes, the more fully and deeply

will he live the life of the composition as he hears it." Kofi


Agawu goes even further and explicitly denies the possibility
for musical ambiguity. Like Schachter, Agawu believes that
"[i]n situations of competing meanings, the alternatives
are always formed hierarchically, making all such situations

decidable."2
Despite their skepticism, Schachter and Agawu nevertheless qualify their arguments against ambiguity. Schachter
is careful to explain that it is not his intention "to deny the
possibility that ambiguity and multiple meanings might exist
in tonal music."His point, rather,is that the function of ambiguity "is more narrowly circumscribedthan some analysts,
2Schachter

57

1990, 169; Agawu 1994, 107.

58

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

methodology that David Lewin was to formalize in his influential article"Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes
of Perception."6Although Lewin does not addressambiguity
per se, the approach to analysis that he advocates, with its
dedicationto carving out analytical space for multiple meanings, is highly suggestive for the topic.
My own contributionto ongoing explorationsof Brahmsian
ambiguitytakes Epstein's and Lewin's emphasis on listening
perspective as a point of departure. Despite my differences
with Schachter,I also find it useful to focus on the kinds of
binary, "either/or"oppositions that he develops as a route
towards analyticalinsight. Yet rather than analyze compositions in which Schachter's call for single, correct readings
rings true, I propose to explore passages in which Brahms
takes considerablepains to encouragemultipleinterpretations.
The particularform of binary opposition that will be my
focus arises in both the metric and harmonic dimensions.
Indeed my argument in favor of ambiguity as an irreducible
component of Brahms'saesthetic centers on the similarways
in which metric and harmonic double meanings emerge, develop, and ultimately resolve. In both musical dimensions,
ambiguitymay arise within an initial context in which there
is not enough information to signal a univalent metric or
harmonic interpretation. The initial context instead plants
the seeds for the bivalence that is to become a source for
musical development. In the case of rhythmic ambiguity,the
passages I will explore involve motivic cells whose strongweak or weak-strong metric identity is open to question.
Repeating such a cell in shifted positions and in varied musical contexts heightens the overall sense of ambiguity such
that the ambiguity itself becomes a narrative thread in a
Brahms work. Similarly, in the harmonic dimension, when
roots are a fifth apart context can make it unclearwhich root
is controlling: I-V or IV-I. A Brahms piece may, through
repetition and recontextualization, make this harmonic ambiguity a topic for elaboration. In the case of both types of

perhaps misled by false analogies to language, seem to believe."3Agawu similarly uses concepts of hierarchyand context in assessing interpretive options as means of acknowledging the existence of double meanings while nevertheless
making such apparently bivalent situations submit
to the dictates of a single analysis. For him, the only true
ambiguity would arise in a context in which "two (or more)
meanings are comparablyor equally plausible,"a situation he
believes does not exist in tonal music.4
Although I am sympathetic to Schachter's and Agawu's
admonitions for us to avoid what might be called an "Old
MacDonald Approach to Analysis"-here an ambiguity,
there an ambiguity,everywhere an ambiguity--I am not yet
ready to abandon the idea of double meaning as a critical
category for Brahmsian interpretation. Rather, I am convinced that Brahms was as dedicated to creating multivalent
ideas as he was to crafting the clear and distinct shapes of
Schachter's unnamed sculptor or painter. Moreover, I contend that it is essential to perceive more than just the clarity
of distinct shapes. We also need to perceive bivalence and its
consequences if we are to appreciate more fully and deeply
the life of Brahms'scompositions.
But how are we to engage ambiguity in an analytically
meaningful way? David Epstein suggests the answer lies in
part in a focus on multiple temporal perspectives.Indeed, he
argues that Brahms characteristicallyconfirms the multivalence of his ambiguous ideas by exploring competing structural potentials as his compositions unfold. Epstein even asserts that, for Brahms, exploration of "variousviewpoints"
often becomes the impetus behind a passage or even an entire composition.5 With his focus on listening perspective,
Epstein anticipates a core component of the analytical
3

4
5

Schachter 1990, 169. For a similar qualified skepticism regarding notions of ambiguity specifically as they apply to issues of metric and
hypermetric interpretation, see Schachter 1999, 97-100.
Agawu 1994, 89.
Epstein 1979, 162-69.

Lewin 1986.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

ambiguity, a decisive recontextualization typically resolves


the double meaning as part of the work'sclose.
Brahms'sC-minor Piano Quartet, op. 60, providesfertile
ground in which to begin to explore metric dualities and
their consequences. Following this analysis,I addresssimilar
metric ambiguities as they interact specificallywith Brahms's
linkage technique in the Double Concerto, op. 102, and
Clarinet Trio, op. 114. A comparison of the function of ambiguity in these works establishes characteristicstrategiesof
double meaning, strategies we see in effect even as we shift
our focus to harmonic ambiguity in the Adagio of the Gmajor String Quintet, op. 111, and the B-minor Rhapsody,
op. 79, no. 1.7

Each analysis proceeds from conflicting interpretationsof


an opening theme to later developments of this material,
always with attention to the remarkabledetails of musical
craftsmanship that Brahms's compositions offer in abundance. We will see that the works' thematic processesgravitate towards precisely those competing characteristicsthat
give rise to the initial sense of double meaning. In the case of
both metric and harmonic ambiguity, the notion of retrospective clarification of puzzling events will thus inform my
analyses. But in expanding on Edward Cone's notions of
"promissorynotes" and "unfinished business,"my approach
highlights the fact that it is often the very presence of an
elemental double meaning that later contexts support.8The
result, regardless of whether we are confronted with metric
or harmonic ambiguity, is an enormous tonal delay whose
resolution correspondswith liquidation of the contradictory
characteristics, so that the movements finally achieve the

My interest in the concerto and quintet has been stimulated by the


work of John Daverio, a scholar whose writings, along with Epstein's
and Lewin's, were very much on my mind as I developed the ideas for
this essay. Daverio's published work on the Adagio from the Quintet
appears in Daverio 1993, 144-54. He provides a critical reevaluation of
the concerto in Daverio 2002.
Cone 1986 and 1989.

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

59

clarity absent from their bivalent openings. The fact that


double meanings play a central role in these larger tonal
processes supports the idea that we are dealing with genuine
cases of ambiguity rather than passages in which a single
interpretation dominates.
Before forging ahead with analysis,we need to returnfor
a moment to issues surrounding the relationship between
listening perspective and double meaning. As previously
mentioned-and in contrast to the view that I will develop
-Agawu argues that the possibility for ambiguity evaporates once an analysis sorts out the different temporal contexts in which competing interpretations arise. Take the
conflicting metric interpretations of the opening motive of
the C-minor piano quartet suggested in Example 1. As
Lewin asserts, it is illogical to claim that we hear this figure
as both strong-weak and weak-strong at the same time. His
solution-one that both Agawu and I adopt-is to draw attention to different temporal contexts in which we might
hear the motive in one way or the other. But does this potential for diverse interpretationsamount to a robust ambiguity?
Agawu argues that a single interpretation will dominate in
any of these different contexts; thus no ambiguity arises. In
the absence of the 50-50 balance he requiresfor ambiguity,it
is simply a matter of a rhythmic motive that we hear one way
in one context and anotherway in another context.
I nevertheless contend that the special characterof many
Brahms passages is only partially captured by this more inclusive, temporally-sensitive version of either/or hearing.
Although it may be impossible to hear conflicting rhythmic
interpretations simultaneously, some motives nevertheless
have less clearly-defined metric identities than others. I will
demonstrate that Brahms may indeed hold us in an ongoing
state of ambivalence as he develops such materials.The sum
total of the processof hearing a motive that keeps switching
meanings may indeed produce ambiguity. For it is my contention that, as we listen, we assess musical ideas not merely
as isolated components within discrete temporal contexts.
We also respond to these ideas as entities that live a life of

60

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

true for musical ideas. Some are absolutely clear in either


metrical identity or tonal function. Others may have varying
capacities to be heard in multiple ways. Thus although it
might be difficult to argue for a 50-50 balance between competing interpretations, it is nevertheless analytically meaningful to distinguish between cases that come close versus
situations in which there is near or absolute clarity.
With respect to rhythmic issues, we might consider the
piano quartet'sbasic idea in light of a continuum extending
from materials that are metrically unequivocal to those that
are a-metric, that is, situations in which there is absolute
clarity one way or the other. The quartet's motive stands
between these extremes and thus has greater potential for
double meaning than an idea at the continuum's endpoints
of univalence. Moreover, Brahms creates and develops this
double meaning with masterful acuity and range.
Although we might be hard pressed to locate an extended
a-metric passage in Brahms, it is obviously not difficult to
find examples of clear and distinct metrical shapes. Take, for
instance, the passage from the Eb-major Rhapsody,op. 119,
no. 4, shown in Example 2(a). What is noteworthy here is
that, although the rhapsody's rhythmic motive of m. 65 is
similarto the piano quartet'sbasic idea, Brahms places it in a
context in which one cannot help but perceive the notated
meter.By contrast,the other excerpts in Example 2 possess a
degree of metric ambiguity comparableto that found in the
quartet.Although a detailed analysis of these works falls beyond the scope of this article, I will nevertheless return to
them later in order to compare some consequences of their
rhythmic double meanings with the impact of metric ambiguity in the quartet.'0 At the least, my analyses suggest a
stylistic basis for the kinds of relationships I will pursue in
the quartet and as such provide intertextual support for my
argumentthat this specific type of metric bivalence serves as
a driving force in Brahms'sformal processes.

continuity across the unfolding of a work. In other words,


while it may be analytically productive to adopt a Lewinesque emphasis on cognition and temporality,we need not
reject outright competing notions of Platonic atemporality
and idealism. Once we are engaged in analysis,both perspectives may lead to insight-provided that we are willing to
approach our work pragmatically,without aspirations for an
allusive methodological purity.
To illustrate the point, consider the repetitions of the
quarter-note motive in Example 1. When we speak of the
motive in measures3 or 4--or mm. 13, 14, 32, or 33-we are
not speaking exclusively of fragments that we perceive only
in different temporal contexts. In as much as the motives are
related by an identity relationship-and this after all is what
allows us to speak of them as repetitions-we are hearing the
evolution of a musical idea. We mentally retain this idea
independent of its isolated iterations, during the process
though which we assess the idea from variousviewpoints. As
we experience the motive from these viewpoints, we will see
that it is possible to become less and less sure of the idea's
metrical identity. This is the case even despite (or perhaps
because of) any momentary clarity that may arise at isolated
moments in the listening process, that is, despite the contextual clarity that Agawu believes disavows the possibility for
ambiguity.
It is also crucial to observe that, even within one or another of Agawu's or Lewin's contexts, there may be varying
possibilities for attribution of double meaning. An analogy
with the famous rabbit/duck sketches clarifies what is involved here. Despite their potential duality,Lewin points out
that no one looking at these sketches claims to see a rabbit
and a duck simultaneously.9 Lewin highlights this fact to
bolster his argument about the importance of temporal perspective for analysis of musical multivalence. Another point
worth highlighting is that not all sketches of rabbits have the
potential to be seen as ducks and visa versa.The same is also
o0
9

Lewin 1986, 370-71.

Readersinterestedin more detailed discussion of the horn trio and


clarinettrio can consultSmith 2001.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

61

IN BRAHMS

Ivla./cello l

99

Allegro non troppo

Violine

I I
p

Bratsche

--0001-

----

Violoncell
p ~Allegro non troppo

Pianoforte

T4th 4th

dim.

iio6

dim.

aligned

EXAMPLE
I. Brahms, C-minor Piano Quartet, i, 1-34.

METRIC AMBIGUITY

context with the clear definition of meter provided by the


measures that precede the C-minor motive of m. 65 in the
op. 119 Rhapsody. Supporting factors for the competing
metric interpretations in the quartet are listed in Example
3.12 Note in Example 1 that although the viola and cello

AND TONAL DELAY IN THE C-MINOR


PIANO QUARTET

The absence of metric articulation within the initial


quasi-fermataon C is crucial to the possibility for multiple
rhythmic interpretations of the quartet's head motive (see

Example 1).11 Contrast the openness of this rhythmic


ii

For discussion of other instances of quasi-fermatas in Brahms, see


Smith 1994a, 254-55, and 1992, 235-37. Samarotto 1999, 47, also uses

12

the term and specifically links the idea of a quasi-fermata as unmeasured time to his related category of uninterpreted durations.
See Caplin 1998, 35-42, for definitions of the form-functional terms
presentation and continuation that appear in Ex. 3.

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

62

1 4th

13

p1

1 4th
----

rI--

--|

dim. sempre

espress.

dim.

------

Sespress

espress.

sempre

dim. sempre

i6

iio6
aligned

weak-strong!

orweak-strong?

27

then
strong-weak

-but

strong-weak

J
pizz.rco

-pp
pp

V.

pizz.

p marc

sf
.aarco

Aige
ir)

V/displaced

i/aligned
EXAMPLE I.

[continued]

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

AND HARMONIC

SS

Sf

Sf

Sf
W-

Sf3
S

AMBIGUITY
W

IN BRAHMS

63

etc.

7f-

or S - W
Andante

p dolce espress.
Horn in Es

,A

Andante

Pianoforte

Iwl--

"

d.oc-..I

p dolce

(b) Brahms, Eb-major Horn Triody,i,1-8.

EXAMPLE 2.

provide metric clarification in the continuation portion of


the sentence, a residue of conflicting cues remainsin the violin. Moreover, the phrase culminates in yet another metrically undefined quasi-fermata even before the opening B%
octaves returnin m. 11.
The Bk octaves preparea second progressionfrom metric
uncertainty to partial clarity within the varied repeat of the

opening phrase. There is, however, perhaps a heightened


sense of displacement due to Brahms's transference of the
motivic ascending fourth-a characteristic anacrusicgesture
-into the top voice. Moreover, as he sits on the goal dominant of m. 27, Brahms effaces the somewhat clearerarticulation of the meter that again has just emerged in the lower
strings. An element of metric liquidation thus complements

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

64

or S

S W
Wor

ws
(c) Brahms, A-minor

Clarinet Trio, i, 12-17

153
So

(c)

Brahms,

A-inor

Clarinet

-(il

Trio,

i,

2-

arc7.

dolce

StringsI

(i.)

(d) Brahms, A-minor Double Concerto,i, 153-57 (simplfied).


EXAMPLE 2.

[continued]

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

Strong-weak as notated
Forpresentation (mm. 3-4)
(1) appoggiatura character of Eb
(2) p
(3) possibility for short-long "sarabande"
rhythm in 3/4
For continuation and cadence (mm. 5-10)
(1) agogic emphasis on cello Ab, F, D, G
(2) crescendo to cello D at m. 8
EXAMPLE

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

65

Weak-strong displacement
(1) agogic emphasis on D
(2) tendency for ii6 to fall on accented
beat as in: C I F6 G6/4 G5/3 1 C
(3) C-F ascending 4th in cello
(cf B -E6 and Db-G6 in vl. of mm. 14
and 16)
(1) agogic emphasis on vl. Cs, Ab, G

3. Supportingfactorsfor competing metric interpretations.

the more conventional thematic liquidation as the phrase


reaches its harmonic goal.
By the time the dominant enters at m. 27, then, we have
experienced two progressions from metric ambivalence to
partial clarity and back to ambivalence. In both cases, as
the notated meter emerges somewhat more vividly in the
continuation portion of the phrase, the basic idea receives
retrospective definition as a strong-weak gesture. Thus when
the same quarter-note figure enters in the form of the E
again the quasi-fermata context-pizzicatos in m. 28-note
it seems logical to expect that the motive will emerge again
as a strong-weak utterance. This, however, is precisely what
Brahms avoids. As the notated meter resurfaces at m. 31, the
weak-strong motion to F defines a new anacrusic placement
for the rhythmic cell. On the one hand, this anacrusic position casts some doubt on perceptions of the original version
of the basic idea as strong-weak. Perhaps the previouslyrejected intuitions of weak-strong accentuation were indeed
correct. Yet it is also the case that the dominant of m. 31 resolves into a thematic counterstatement that articulates the
downbeat position of the head motive without equivocation.

Brahms's rhythmic idea finally achieves a state of clarity in


which there is absolute conformance between heard and
notated meter. Thus at this stage in the piece, two rhythmic
identities have been posited and both have received later
confirmation in more metrically determinant environments.
To this point our focus has been on metric issues. But
what about the potential for tonal bivalence? Do the pizzicato
Eqs, for instance, point toward an ambiguity of pitch function? Moreover, is there any particular way in which metric
and tonal ambiguity might interact in a Brahms movement?
Given their oddity, it is surprising how easy it is to interpret
the Eis, as outlined in Example 4. Their passing function
argues against the idea of a double meaning. Yet at the
moment they enter, before the voice leading carries them on
to F, the pizzicatos do indeed introduce an element of functional uncertainty. Not only are they tonally odd-they
enter
D
an
and
from
an
rather
than
abruptly
implicit
explicit 5-6
as
also
motion-but
are
isolated
Brahms
well.
they
timbrally
on
the
within
another
Eis,
quasi-fermata, creating a
lingers
further sense of isolation. These factors encourage an experiential perplexity, that is, a pregnant pause, until the entry of

66

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

5- 6 -7

i
EXAMPLE 4.

"unfinished business,"whose fulfillment is long-postponed


and unlikelyyet in retrospectinevitable.13
By contrast,multiple metric interpretationsof the quarternote motive are availableto compete from the outset. There
is a palpable tension between the two hearings within the
tonic area, and the rhythmic cell thus achieves a degree of
ambiguity absent from the pizzicato Eis. Brahms presents
his idea notationally in two metric positions, and confirms
both rhythmic identities with the unambiguous anacrusic
Eq-F motion (m. 31, weak-strong) and the clear downbeat
orientation for the head motive at the counterstatement(m.
32, strong-weak).It is not a matter of one or the other possibility functioning as a dormant seed, awaiting later growth;
both rhythmic identities begin to germinate within the initial appearanceof the material. Moreover, as is well known
and as the excerptsin Example 2 illustrate,discrepanciesbetween heard and notated meter are a Brahmsian hallmark.
By contrast, harmonic status for a ?iii chord otherwise incidental to a 5-6 motion, represents an esoteric possibility that
requiresexplicit realizationto achieve perceptualrelevance.
One issue raised by the realization of the harmonic potential of the 6 chord is the role of compositional intent in
discussions of ambiguity. Put otherwise, one strategy for
defending the notion of ambiguity is to demonstrate a positive compositional function for the proposed bivalence.
Otherwise ambiguity might imply either creativeweakness
or analytical incompetence, an inability for a composer to
craft Schachter's"clearand distinct shapes"or for an analyst
to perceive them.14 In the quartet's opening paragraphof
Example 1, there is strong evidence of Brahms's commitment to double meaning. How else are we to explain the

Passingfunction for E#.

F provides retrospective clarification. Observe the interaction of the metric and tonal dimensions at this point in the
form: the very moment that the arrivalof F clarifies the contrapuntal function of E?, the passage likewise clarifies, at
least momentarily,the metric identity of the pizzicato quarter
notes. We will see that this type of coordination between dimensions has far-reaching consequences not only for the
piano quartet,but for Brahmsian ambiguity in general.
Returning to the Eis themselves, notwithstanding the
initial moment of suspense, it would seem dubious to attribute E?-minor harmonic function to the 6 chord at m. 28.
We are much more likely to hear the chord as some type of
unusual byproductof voice leading even before its function is
made clear by the continuation to F. An E?-minor function,
however, is preciselywhat Brahms assigns the 6 chord in the
recapitulation, as highlighted in Example 5. It turns out that
the chord does have potential to function as an inversion,
even though Brahms realizes that potential only in a later
context. This element of bivalence is nevertheless distinct
from the metric duality of the main theme's basic idea. An
EN-minor function for the 3 chord remains inactive within
the context of the expository dominant expansion. The
chord's harmonic potential lies fallow until the recapitulation. The possibility for tonicization thus representsa case of

13

14

Brahms's strategy of eventually realizing the latent harmonic potential


of a contrapuntal 6 chord informshsmany
of his compositions. For an inmany of
of
the
Smith
1997.
On "unfinished business," see
see
vestigation
topic
Cone 1989.
Schachter 1990, 169.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

217

pizz.

PP
p

marc

dim.

IN BRAHMS

67

arco

arco

pizz.

p dim.

AND HARMONIC AMBIGUITY

p..

dimm. p

.'..

S5

l ,

dim.

dim.

Bdim.

(a)iIIp

(a

S6

Bmu

1,217-37.
C-mlorPiano
(a)
Quartet,
Bra.ms,
EXAMPLE 5.

espress.

68

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)


217

227

223

230

236

pizz.
i

-.. --

.
.i

- ..,II"LOL-

5-6

5
V

5-6

5-E5

5 - 6

10

07
7 4
t 2

8-7

6 -5
4-3

E-minor motivic expansion

5 - 6

4 -3

V (as local tonic)

(b) Analysis of voiceleading.


EXAMPLE 5.

dramatic shift from the quasi-fermatasscattered throughout


the opening, with their attenuating effect on metric perception, to the relentless definition of the notated meter at the
counterstatementof m. 32? This contrast is part of a strategy
to begin not with a straightforwardopening accent but with
a tension-filled anacrusis leading to a delayed structural
downbeat.
Note how a similarly sharp contrast of harmonic character joins the rhythmic-metric dichotomy to create this progression from tension to release. The opening, although it
unfolds within a structural tonic, expands that tonic in part
through moments of seeming tonal discontinuity. Here I
have in mind not only the shift to Bb at m. 11 and the intrusion of the pizzicato E s. Also disruptive is the progression
from the local emphasis on Db in m. 15 to the
Bb-major 6
chord at m. 17. To be sure, one does not have to delve too
deeply to find sources of coherence for these striking tonal
events: B6 enters through chromatic inflection of the B? implicit in the dominant arrivalof m. 9; E? is a passing tone, as
we have just seen; and the violin's dissonant Gb in the viio6/
D1 chord at the end of m. 16 resolves in register to the viola's

[continued]

F.The elements of surface discontinuity neverthelessjoin the


metric ambiguity,rhythmic starts and stops, and slow surface
rhythm to embed a slow introductory characterwithin the
opening. The extended passage of descending chromaticism
at m. 17 likewise contributes to the sharp contrast between
the unheimlischembedded introduction and the fury of the
counterstatement'spure C minor.To assert an unambiguous
4 meter throughout the opening would be to deny a significant component of the expressive opposition between the
passages.
In addition to their contribution to a pattern of tension
and release,harmony and meter also interact to create more
specific correlationsbetween the tonal and rhythmic dimensions.15 Its rhythmic tenuousness notwithstanding, the
aligned version of the basic idea is associated with tonic articulation. This is the case not only at the very outset but
15 My attention to tonal-rhythmic correlations is inspired by Lewin 1981.
I similarly explore correlations between harmonic prolongation and
metric displacement in Smith 2001. For further extension of Lewin's
ideas, see Cohn 2001.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

17

The metric ambiguity of the quarter-note motive serves as a basis for


development at other points in the movement as well. A noteworthy
passage in this regard is the central episode of the development beginning in m. 142. There the grandiose B-major transformation of the
main theme clearly projects the notated meter. It is in the passage that
follows at m. 154 that Brahms exploits the head motive's metric ambiguity to undercut the apparent triumph of the major-mode transformation. Once again harmony and meter work hand in hand. The shift to
E-minor at m. 154 highlights the ephemeral character of the B-major
triumph by retrospectively redefining it as an unstable dominant expansion. Likewise, the solidity of the notated meter in the B-major passage
disintegrates into the rhythmic ambiguities of the turbulent E-minor
section.
Schachter 1990, 169-73, provides a stimulating discussion of apparent
tonics.

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

69

In the first instance, the metric instability of the head


motive intensifies as part of the process whereby retransitional tension extends across the point of thematic return.
The triplet octaves in mm. 196-98 articulate the quarternote pulse, in contrast to the a-metric characterof the original C octaves for which they substitute. But in a development of the quasi-fermatacharacterof the Cs, the absence of
articulation on the dotted-half level (downbeat of m. 197)
creates some doubt regardingthe rhythmic status of the material in m. 198. Does the shift to Ab correspond with the
heard downbeat or does the agogic accent on the second beat
-note the accent in the piano-articulate a metric shift?18
Annotations in Example 6 highlight the fact that repetitions
of the triplet motive, labeled X, across the formal hinge continue to emphasize the second beat as the piano reintroduces
the head motive with its intrinsic tendency for displacement.
As in the expository version, the notated meter emerges with
greater clarity, above all in the accompaniment, as the sentence continues beyond its basic idea (m. 201). The metric
confusion across the reprise neverthelessjoins both the intrusive Ab and textural-dynamic overlap to blur the formal
boundary and thus to deny thematic or tonal resolution.
The tendency for displacement further develops following the dominant arrivalat the end of the main theme (m.
205). In the passage beginning in m. 208 of Example 6, the
fragmentary iterations of the head motive lose even their
tenuous grip on the meter and slide into positions of displacement. This aspect of development builds on the relationship between the head and pizzicato versions of the
quarter-note idea. At the recapitulatorypoint of crisis, the
original version of the motive is overcome by characteristics

also within the tonicizations of Bk and Db in mm. 13-16, as


highlighted in Example 1. The pizzicato displacement, by
contrast,falls within the dominant.The tension of this dominant resolves both tonally and metricallywith the return of
the basic idea at m. 32, thus confirming the association of
metric alignment with tonic articulation. Indeed, Brahms
createsa rhythmic corollaryfor the tonal relentlessnessof the
C pedal in the suddenly emphatic articulationof the meter.
Not surprisingly,Brahmsdevelopsall of these characteristics
-especially the metric duality-when the opening material
returns in the recapitulation.16The result is a reinterpretation of the passage's anacrusiccharacteras part of a recapitulatory formal overlap.The thematic material reenters at
m. 199 of Example 6, but it is subsumedwithin a continuation of the retransition'sdominant prolongation. The tonic
chords within the passage are apparent-not structural-tonics, that is, they are chords built with the pitches of the
tonic but without a tonic function." What is noteworthy for
our discussion of metric ambiguity is the development of the
quarter-note motive as part of this recapitulatoryoverlap.
The process of development occurs in both the disguised
reentryof the main theme at m. 199 and the newly-composed
segment beginning in m. 208, also shown in Example 6.
16

AND HARMONIC

18

To a large degree, a decision about how to hear the passage will depend
on performance factors. A chamber group that emphasizes the downbeat shift to A?, perhaps with a Luftpause, will make it harder to hear
the agogic emphasis in m. 198 as part of a metric displacement. A
quartet that plays through the notated downbeat and onward to the
second beat will make displacement all the more plausible.

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

70

etc.

~
Y

k"

espress

xf

coespress

fr

fff

S--W
notated or:

204as

S --W

S -W

(Displaced

di;

i
N-

f
--Im

--

V
EXAMPLE6. Brahms, C-minor Piano Quartet, i, 196-213.

hemiola)

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

of the tonally anomalous pizzicato figure. What was originally associated with the tonic and the notated downbeat
becomes dominant oriented and displaced in a mannerthat
solidifies a connection with the pizzicato version.Yet despite
the new position of displacement, the metric identity of the
motive remains ambiguous.As the annotationsin Example 6
highlight, there is a very real possibility to hear a (displaced)
strong-weak orientation for the idea despite the articulation
of the notated meter in the piano. No matter how Brahms
positions the motive, it stubbornly resists straightforward
metric interpretation.
Furtherdevelopment of metric-tonal correlationsarisesin
consequences Brahms draws from the pizzicato idea as it returns in m. 224. The aforementioned tonicization of the E s
becomes a stepping stone to recapitulationof the secondary
material in the unlikely key of the major dominant (see m.
236 of Example 5). Thus in a somewhat more abstractmanner, the displacedversion of the quarter-notemotive remains
bound up with the dominant. Brahms takes care to provide
both metric resolution for the head motive and tonal-timbral
resolution for the pizzicato figure as part of the delayed
structuraldownbeat that results from this off-tonic return.
Remarkably,the dominant expansion extends not only
across the reprise of the secondary material (mm. 236-87)
but even into the coda of m. 288. This extended dominant
itself furtherprolongs the dominant that originatesin the retransition and flows across the return of the primary thematic material.The result is that we find ourselvesstill waiting for a structuraltonic as late as m. 312 of the coda.19As
Example 7 shows, a passage characterizedby relentlessarticulation of the notated meter prepares the restatement of
the opening C octaves that finally provide this delayedtonic
at m. 313. (The clear delineation of the meter in m. 312
reflects the overall metric clarity of the preparatorypassage,

I discussthis tonal delay and its implicationsfor Schenkerianviews of


sonataformin greaterdetail in Smith 1994b.

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

71

which begins in m. 308.) The sense of pulse easily continues


through the octaves, which lose their a-metric character.
The sustained meter allows for clear rhythmic definition
of the two versions of the quarter-note motive as they enter
for the first time in contrapuntal combination. Indeed the
combination itself contributes to the sudden metric clarity.
There is no longer any doubt that the octave leap functions
as an anacrusis and that the basic idea sits firmly on the
downbeat. In addition to this element of metric resolution,
note that both the timbral and tonal dissonance of the pizzicato motive resolve: the unheimlisch E? figure now appears
arco and transposed to the tonic pitch level. Liquidation of
the movement's seminal
motivic idiosyncrasy-including
metric double meaning-thus
complements the long delayed
resolution of the recapitulation's dominant prolongation.20
METRIC AMBIGUITY

AND LINKAGE IN THE DOUBLE

CONCERTO AND CLARINET

TRIO

Although I have not yet described it in these terms, the


motivic process across the formal hinge at m. 32 in the
quartet presents a classic case of Knipftechnik or linkage technique (refer back to Example 1).21 The motivic substance at
the end of one formal unit-the pizzicato
the
E*s-becomes
thematic point of departure-the EB-D basic idea-for the
subsequent section. The wrinkle here is that the motivic
connection is primarily rhythmic. Although both passages
emphasize 3, an identity relationship arises largely through
repetition of the quarter-note pattern. Note also that the
rhythmic motive occurs twice in each instance. As we have

20

21

i9

AND HARMONIC

Epstein 1979, 162-69, tracesa similarcoordinationbetweenresolution


of a tonal delay and resolutionof an elementalmetricalambiguityin
the firstmovementof Brahms'sSecond Symphony.
The term Knipftechnikis Schenker's.See his discussionof motive in
Schenker1954, 3-12 and fn. 10. For additionalexamplesand further
discussionof linkage, see Kalib 1973, vol. I: 89-92, and Jonas 1982,
7-10.

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

72

Pizz. motive now arco and transposed to C.


Clearlyheard as notated:W-S
312

largamente
espress.

vi

Piano
(vla. + cello not shown)

EXAMPLE

(+ 8)

+ via. (+8)

cello (piano not shown)

Headmotivenowclearlyheardas notated:S-W

7. Brahms, C-minor Piano Quartet, i, 312-17 (simplified).

seen, the process is complicated by the fact that the metric


position of the motive shifts across the formal divide.
This shift is crucial to my argument in favor of hearing
the tonic area in terms of an elemental metric ambiguity.To
summarize:following previous retrospectiveconfirmations of
a strong-weak interpretation of the basic idea, the entrance
of the pizzicato motive can easily be heard as yet another
strong-weak utterance.Yet not a moment later, an anacrusic
E?-F motion (mm. 30-31) clarifies the situation in favor
of a weak-strong interpretation. But then linkage with
the counterstatement forces us back into the just-rejected
strong-weak hearing. The result is a process in which we can
never be certain about the status of the motive-either the
version we have just heard or the one we are currentlyhearing, or even repetitions still to come. This is the case despite
isolated moments in which a single interpretationapparently
comes into focus, that is, despite the context-sensitive hierarchy of interpretations that Agawu believes disavows the
possibility for ambiguity.
Although linkage is most often described as a pitch
phenomenon, the quartet is far from the only example in
which the technique interacts with rhythmic-metric devel-

opment. Such instances of linkage characteristicallyfunction


within larger processes centered on a back-and-forth of
metric ambiguity.This is the case in the first movements of
the double concerto, clarinet trio, and horn trio, works whose
metrically-ambiguous motives I have already cited in Example 2. The concerto, where linkage is ubiquitous,provides
an ideal context to continue our exploration of Brahmsian
bivalence.Since I have written elsewhere about metric organization in the trios, I will limit my discussion here to the
most relevant points as exemplified by the clarinet work, as
an adjunct to my discussion of the concerto. These include
characteristicswe have also observed in the piano quartet:
(1) the function of linkage in larger metric processes, particularlyas it contributesto ambiguity; (2) correspondencesbetween the rhythmic and harmonic dimensions; (3) the role
of metric displacementin creating extended tonal delays;and
(4) the tendency for Brahms to resolve metric ambiguity as
an integralpart of closure, following these extended delays.
The secondaryidea in the concerto'sfirst movement plays
a crucial role in establishing and developing the work's elemental metric ambiguity. The omnipresence of linkage in
Brahms'streatment of this idea becomes apparentat the out-

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

set in the concerto'sfamous opening alternationof orchestral


and cadenza-like passages.22As Example 8 illustrates,the
solo cello concludes its cadenza in mm. 25-26 with an F-E
dyad whose appoggiatura character signals a strong-weak
(hyper)metricrelationship.The clarinet then enters with the
secondaryidea whose head motive forms a linking repetition
with the cello's appoggiatura.23The fact that the horns extend the cello's E to form yet another quasi-fermata,means
that the metric context for the clarinet entrance is less than
clearly defined. This lack of definition conspires with the
linkage and grouping pattern of the head motive to encourage a metric displacement.
Listeners who hold tightly to the cadenza'smeter, even in
the face of the quasi-fermata,neverthelesswill recognize the
clarinet's syncopated status.24The clarinet'smisalignment is
further signaled by articulationof the barlines in the accompaniment (third and fourth horns, second flute, etc.). The
passage thus presents a threefold rhythmic complexity.Are
we to hear the theme as notated, with the melody out of
phase with the meter as defined by the accompaniment?Or
do the linkage and quasi-fermataallow us to be fooled into
thinking that the melody corresponds with the meter,
thereby defining the accompaniment as syncopated?Or do
we hear something in between: a conflict between a strongweak tendency in the melody competing against the accompaniment's articulationof the notated meter?
Rather than solve the quandary,the passage sustains multivalence through further linkage, now across the hinge between the orchestralphrase and the violin'scadenza of m. 31.
22

23

Daverio interprets linkage across the entrance of cadenza passages in


the concerto as part of a strategy by which Brahms integrates "the chief
tokens of virtuosic display with the formal and thematic argument"
of the work. For this point as well as far-reaching critical commentary
on the entire concerto, see Daverio 2002.
The cello's cadenza itself enters through linkage with the opening orchestral outburst (mm. 4-5).

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

73

As Example 9 suggests, the violin material supports multiple


interpretations, at least until m. 34 where the notated meter
decisively reemerges. From one perspective, the new linking
motive can be heard to extend a displacement in the final
bars of the orchestral phrase. Yet the agogic accents on the
violin's high A half notes begin to signal the notated barlines.
In addition to their influence on metric interpretation of the
cadenza, these accents retrospectively effect interpretation
of the orchestral passage. As the violin's motive locks on to
the notated meter, the passage encourages us to reconsider
the statement of the same figure at the end of the previous
phrase: perhaps the second linking motive did articulatethe
meter all along. This revelation in turn calls into question a
strong-weak interpretation of the head motive of the secondary theme. But this last bit of retrospective reevaluation
contradicts the original linking relationship with the cello,
one source for the initial sense of metric displacement.
Brahms thus traps us in a seemingly endless loop of ambiguity. He never makes it exactly clear either where we are,
where we have been, or where he might take us. Just as the
music seems to settle into one perspective, linkage forces us
to reconsider.The result is a process in which we are continually uncertain regarding the metrical identity of Brahms's
motivic materials.
This ambiguity contributes to the yearning and gently
restless character of the secondary material. Indeed, Brahms
continues to marshal linkage in the service of metric bivalence when the theme returnsin the C-major secondary area
(m. 153). As Example 10 highlights, the clarinet line at the
end of the transition reawakens both metric possibilities
24

This manner of hearing corresponds with Andrew Imbrie's notion of


a conservative listener, that is, a listener who maintains a previouslyestablished meter for as long as possible in the face of conflicting cues.
Imbrie's radical listener, by contrast, is more inclined to adjust immediately in the face. of challenges to an ongoing metric pattern. See Imbrie
1973.

28 (2006)
MUSICTHEORYSPECTRUM

74

Sw S-W
s-w

25s-s

FL

25.S--W
p7

dokee

p=dolce

dod/ce

Sdolcece

Hr.
p

arco
Solo
:
Vc.
S

-w

EXAMPLE8. Brahms, Double Concerto,i, 25-30 (simpliied).

for the 3-2 dyad.The clarinet also articulatesits closing 6-appoggiatura as a strong-weak gesture. Brahms thus places
the second theme in another context of linkage that encourages the same internal conflicts found in the opening
orchestral-cadenza alternation. Listeners attuned to the
preparatoryarticulation of the notated meter will hear the
second theme syncopated against the accompaniment. For
those more focused on the grouping pattern in the solo cello
it will be just the opposite. In either case, it is noteworthy
that the theme's rhythmic restlessness complements the
passage's harmonic instability. As the graph in Example 11
shows, the theme expands the dominant rather than the
local C tonic. Similar to the situation in the piano quartet,
metric dissonance and tonal tension work hand in hand.
It is not the case, however, that metric conflict dominates
the entire thematic statement.The cello and accompaniment
do finally come together to articulate the notated meter at
the arrival on III# at m. 161. What is remarkable is that

Brahms paradoxicallyuses this metric clarity to preparefor


the reemergence of still more metric ambiguity via linkage.
As the cello reaches the end of its phrase, it arriveson two
final statements of the 3-2 dyad, now heard clearly as weakstrong in conformance with the notated meter (mm. 16466). Yet the entrance of the solo violin immediately contradicts this metric consonance with its displaced strong-weak
repetitions of the same 3-2 motive. A trace of the notated
meter nevertheless remains in the accompaniment, which
shifts back to its out-of-phase relationshipwith the solo line.
As we have just seen in the case of the cello'sphrase,the violin and orchestraalso eventually come together to articulate
the notated meter,now at the C-major cadence of mm. 17071 (not shown). Once again, resolution of a tonal delay corresponds with resolution of metric ambiguity. Yet although
soloists and orchestra remain in phase following a quasifermata on this closing C, they work together in the subsequent passageto articulatea displacement (mm. 172-79).

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC


1

4 11

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

75

41

p dolce
Fl.
Cl.

29I

.x

Fgitd

/
29

0-3

/-

29

Solo

--

r---~~~~-3----r---3----_

"N

---3m3------

l3a.

__

Solo
Vcl.I

__

shifted: 1

or

as notated:

2 3 4

1 2 3

EXAMPLE

2 3 4

1 2 3

A
4

A-IC?

1 2 3 4 5 6

etc.

pocof

9. Brahms, Double Concerto, i, 29-36 (simplified).

Thus we see that Brahms thematicizes the seemingly


endless alternation of metric articulation and displacement,
as well as direct conflicts between the two. Indeed, this elemental conflict continues to animate developments of the
secondary idea throughout the movement. The tendency for
internal conflict is especially pronounced in solo passages
where transparency of texture affords Brahms the opportunity to create conflicting signals in his musical narrative. Big
orchestral tuttis, on the other hand, are ideally suited to unambiguous displacement in which all instruments join to efface the notated meter. Comparison of the unchallenged
metric shift in the tutti statements of the secondary idea in
mm. 90-101 and 206-17 with the more conflicted version
for the soloists we have just examined highlights this di-

chotomy. To borrow terminology from Harald Krebs, Brahms


heightens the contrast between solo and tutti sections
through a contrast between direct and indirect (or even subliminal) rhythmic dissonance.25
Given Brahms's penchant for sustained tension, it is not
surprising that the metric ambiguity resolves unequivocally
only in the coda. As seen in Example 12, a final disguised
statement of the secondary idea in the flutes and first violins
counterpoints the soloists' push to cadential closure. The
rhythmic liquidation here is not as straightforward as the
metric resolution in the piano quartet. Brahms manages to
highlight both the head motive's tendency for displacement,
25

Krebs1999.

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

76

W- S

S -W

W-S
148

,
J

W
SoloVcl.

Fg.
dolce

dim.
dim.
-p

Strings

T(p

zz.')
[Idm
--p-

rdim.

sf
--"dm

155
Solo0

1,

Strings

espress.

dolce

arco

sf--

p dim.

EXAMPLE
IO. Brahms, Double Concerto,i, 148-68 (simplified).

and the tendency for agogic accents on the theme's high As


to reassertthe barline. As the annotations in Example 12 indicate, the medium for this dual accommodation is the 5+3
grouping pattern asserted by the soloists. Brahms finally allows the traces of displacement to evaporatesimply by aban-

doning the head motive following its final appearancein m.


423. He focuses instead on articulation of the notated meter
via the high A fragment. This fragment, in turn, liquidates
through rhythmic augmentation as the closing tonic arrives
at m. 428.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

W-

162
Vcl.

,-

-,li

AND HARMONIC

W-

AMBIGUITY

77

IN BRAHMS

S -W!

Solo
Vln.

Fg. I,,

dolce

dolce
pizz.

Strings

--

,v,

I/o
_

pp
EXAMPLE 10.

[continued]

158

156

153

pizz.

163

161

165

167

---

I4,

--,
10

ii

Ger.5

V/ii

III# V

I
IV

V
EXAMPLE II.

Voice-leadinganalysis ofDouble Concerto, i, 153-67.

THE CLARINET TRIO

Similar metric processes involving quarter-note dyads


animate formal developments in the clarinet trio. The trio's
rhythmic and harmonic dimensions, moreover, interact along

the lines we have observed in the piano quartet: articulation


of the notated meter tends to correspond with tonic articulation while displacement tends to correlate with dominant expansion. A further similarity arises in the function of a quasifermata to create a context in which the metric identity of a

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

78

=4
3

421

Solo

Vcl.

-.

T.,,,,Hw.T
5
4

5
4

secondaryidea

4-

1,Fl.

4 (as notated)

___

4vas--

_"_

Vc.
Via.-%_

_
_

Vcl.

pizz.
4

425
A-E-(A) augmented
(8va)---------

--

+ Winds

arco

+ Fg.

arco

EXAMPLE 12. Brahms, Double Concerto,i, 421-27

from the articulation slurs and staccato markings on each


downbeat.The downbeats gain further salience through the
apparentii'4/2 chords that result from this B emphasis. The

seminal thematic idea remains equivocal. As Example 13 illustrates, the grouping pattern of this thematic idea, the
passing function of its Bs, and the cello's entrance in m. 15
support a metric displacement.26 Nevertheless the theme
also includes signs that do indeed articulate the notated
meter. First observe the slight pauses on the Bs, which result
26

Brahms's placement of the virtually identical motive on both the heard


and notated downbeat in the E6-major rhapsody, shown in Example
2(a), provides further support for the idea of a metric shift.

(simplified).

ii~4/2

chords connect motivically to the apparent ii04/2 chords

that fall within the clear articulationof the notated meter in


the movement's main theme (mm. 6-12).27 Brahms further
articulatesthe notated meter at mm. 15 and 17, once again
27

I adopt the designation"apparentii'4/2"from Aldwell and Schachter


2003, 417-18. Aldwell and Schachterdescribethis type of supertonic

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

79

99
po

unpoco

12

AE

112

1133
"ii "
..

0)?
.ii ."

EXAMPLE 13.

"

A E
t

Brahms, Clarinet Trio, i, 4-6 and 12-17.

with material derived from the main theme, as highlighted


by brackets in Example 13. Note also that the clarinet's
anacrusiceighth-notes and the piano'sshift to E as bass emphasize the downbeat of m. 16.

sonority as a consequence of neighboring or passing motion over a sustained bass and thus not of independent harmonic significance.

As in the piano quartet, the trio's metric bivalence serves


as a basis for development. It is in this process of development that a link emerges between the metric duality and a
duality of tonic versus dominant function. The initial statement of the theme remains delicately poised between these
two harmonic poles. We have just seen that the passage provides conflicting signals for metric interpretation.The theme
likewise begins with tonic expansion but then shifts to a

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

80

V6

vii7/V

iv (iif

(a)33-37.
theme 2a

38

4-446

sf -sf

C,.VwIs

Sb
A: Ger. s
C: IV(7

,w s ,
3dolce-

vii67/V

37

(b) 38-47.
EXAMPLE
14. Brahms, Clarinet Trio, i.

IV

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

dominant focus for its second half. By contrast, the plagal


function of the ii,4/2 chords within the tonic-prolonging
main theme (mm. 1-12) and its fragmentary return at m. 18
corresponds with articulation of the notated meter.
Similarly, when the secondary idea returns (see m. 34 of
Example 14(a)), the sense of metric displacement becomes
far more pronounced as the supertonic chord shifts to its
more conventional function as a harmony leading to V.
The voice-exchange pattern (m. 35) and the arrival on the
cadential 6 chord (m. 37) remain the only traces of the
notated meter. Brahms goes a step further in the modulatory
passage of mm. 38-43, shown in Example 14(b). Here, he
removes any signs of the notated downbeat. Although
the passage leads out of A minor, it nevertheless consists
of a motion from an intermediate harmony to the local G
dominant. Viewed from this perspective, the new intermediate harmony-F-A-C-E
-represents a transformed version of the motivic supertonic chord. Dominant expansion
remains bound up with metric displacement.
Linkage enters the formal process as the passage resolves
into the C tonic of the secondary theme at m. 44. Immediately after any signs of the notated meter drop out and we
are convinced that the basic idea must have been strongweak after all, linkage pulls the rug out from under the displacement. As seen in Example 14(b), the final statement of
E (m. 42) enters as part of a series of repetitions of the basic
idea. Yet the agogically accented cadential 6 chord (m. 43)
instantaneously transforms this quarter note E into an anacrusis. The new motivic idea then becomes the head motive for
the second theme, following the conventions of linkage.
Crucially, the E of the linking motive maintains its newfound anacrusic function. Just as in the quartet, tonic articulation corresponds with re-emergence of the notated meter
following a dominant expansion characterized by metric displacement. The motivic continuity across changing metric
circumstances is what contributes to perceptions of ambiguity. As the transition unfolds, we are sure that the motive

AND HARMONIC AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

81

must be strong-weak. This perception in turn leads us to


reflect back on the original version of m. 14 and settle the
quandary it raises also in favor of a strong-weak interpretation. But when linkage carries the motive ahead into a new
metric context, the perceptual ground shifts and we are
forced to readjust our posture in favor of the notated downbeat. The basic idea, in other words, is revealed to have been
out-of-phase with the meter all along. At this point in our
experience, we realize that what we were "really" hearing
must have been increasing emphasis on a displacement.
Another similarity with the quartet is the role that metric
displacement plays in creating a tonal delay across the trio's
recapitulation. The trio likewise resolves its characteristic
rhythmic duality as it finally comes to rest on its closing
tonic. The first point to observe is that the recapitulation begins at m. 126 not with the main theme but with the rhythmically ambiguous idea. Here, the preparatory context leads
us to hear this thematic entrance as displaced. This displacement joins a textural-dynamic overlap with the retransition
to deny structural tonic rearticulation. The tonic chords in
the thematic restatement function as part of a larger dominant prolongation, with V entering as goal at mm. 125, 128,
and 130-31. Thus displacement once again corresponds with
dominant expansion.
The tonal delay continues across the transformed return
of the main theme (m. 138) and into the restatement of the
secondary material. Brahms transposes the tonal relations of
his two-part second group so that the expository C-E key
succession returns as an F-A motion (compare mm. 44 and
67 with 150 and 173). As a result the tonic fails to resurface
as a structural harmony until well into the second group, first
at m. 169 and then more decisively at m. 173.
Brahms nevertheless saves a final component of resolution for the Poco meno Allegro section of the coda (m. 212).
The coda begins at m. 201 with a return of the metrically
ambiguous theme in a context in which displacement dominates. Thus by the time Brahms calls for a slackening of the

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

82

tempo, the listener has lost contact with the notated downbeat. Yet as Example 15 illustrates,the parts realign with the
barline as the final tonic arrives at m. 217. Note that this
metric resolution again involves motivic linkage, as marked
with brackets in Example 15. The displaced version of the
head motive shifts to an aligned and augmented version at
m. 216. This aligned version subsequentlyreverberatesin the
weak-strong 2-3 motions of the following phrase, as the
heard and notated identity of the motive finally correspond.
The similarity with the strategy at the entrance of the trio's
second theme and in the final measuresof the piano quartet
is unmistakable.
VARIATIONS ON HARMONIC

a i-V interpretation would appear to be the more obvious


choice. Heard that way, the Adagio conforms to one of the
most basic conventions for a tonal composition: that it begin
with a statement of its tonic defined as such by progression
to its dominant.The absence of an intermediate harmony in
D (iio or iv) and the presence of A-G# and C?-B? dyads nevertheless signal a plagal interpretation.29By allowing the
viola momentarilyto cross under the cello, Brahms even harmonizes G# and B?with viio/A chords in 36and root position,
respectively.This harmonization motivates the implied resolutions for G# and B? shown in the graph of the passage in
Example 17.30

DOUBLE MEANING

IN THE G-MAJOR STRING QUINTET

Let us now turn our attention to harmonic bivalence as an


animating feature of the Adagio from the G-major viola
quintet and the B-minor rhapsody.These works demonstrate
that many of the strategies that characterizeBrahms'sdevelopment of metric double meaning are central to the composer'streatment of harmonic bivalence.
John Daverio's insights into the quintet movement provide a fruitful starting point. As Daverio argues and as outlined in Example 16, it is possible to interpret the movement's initial progression as either tonic-dominant in D or
subdominant-tonic in A.28 Since the movement is set in D,
28

Daverio 1993, 144-54. Although my focus will be on harmonic ambiguity in the Adagio, the movement's unusual large-scale organization
has stimulated a diversity of opinion regarding its form. Although it is
perhaps best understood as a hybrid form, the movement's resistance to
straightforward formal interpretation provides further evidence of the
degree to which ambiguity stands at its core. In addition to Daverio-who views it as "an essay in the characteristic ... curiously suspended
between two formal paradigms, the variation cycle and the sonata
allegro"-it has been interpreted as a theme and free variations (Sisman
1990, 151-53), a three-part song form (Musgrave 1985, 208), a cavatina (Tovey 1949, 265), a modified strophic pattern, and even an

29

30

unusual sonata form (the latter two possibilities offered by Pascall 1972,
31-33).
The emphasis on these dyads is but one component of the movement's
overall evocation of the style hongrois, as noted by Daverio 1993, 150
and 152. For a stimulating discussion focused specifically on Brahms's
engagement with gypsy style, see Daverio 2002. The absence of an
intermediate harmony alone will not necessarily create harmonic ambiguity in an opening progression of fifth related harmonies. The G and
D harmonies at the outset of the quintet's first movement, for instance,
clearly function within a I-V-I progression, as does the similar D-A-D
motion that opens the first movement of Brahms's Second Symphony.
In both cases, elaboration of the dominant via a cadential 6 chord is
decisive for the clarity of harmonic relationships.There is at least one
composition in which Brahms considered the possibility of beginning
with an unambiguous iv-i plagal motion: the Fourth Symphony.
Litterick 1987 reproduces the page from the autograph score that
includes this opening plagal progression, which Brahms ultimately
deleted in the published version.
Throughout all examples and discussion of the quintet and rhapsody,
I use a lower case Roman numeral and sharp symbol (i#) rather than
simply an upper case Roman numeral (I) to refer to minor tonics that
Brahms makes major through the addition of a Picardy third. I do so
to emphasize the fact that I hear these major tonics as altered versions
of minor tonics even in cases in which the major version may persist
throughout extended stretches of music. This Picardy-third character
arises primarily through expansion of the tonics via their minor
subdominants.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC AND HARMONIC

21

212

4,

4e

Poco meno

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

gro

TI
op

IL

Impr

pp

psempre

..

83

II

i
i

pp

pp

sempre

I
?p

EXAMPLE

15. Brahms, Clarinet Trio, i, 212-17.

I linger on these details to highlight the fact that my


analysisis based not merely on an abstractpotential for double meaning. After all, absent the clarificationnormallyprovided by an actual musical context, any D-A progressionin
textbook whole notes could be interpreted as i-V or iv-i#.
What is crucial is the fact that Brahms creates a theme in
which there are cues for both possibilities, especially for the
more recherche plagal interpretation. The situation is not
unlike what we have observed about metric ambiguityin the
quartet, concerto, and trio. The absence of an intermediate
harmony in the quintet provides a harmonic analogue to the
metric openness of the quasi-fermatasin these other works.
When Brahms goes further and adds viio/A chords with
their melodic corollaries,he furnishes the open context with
signals that encourage an alternativeinterpretation.
A further similarity can be found in Brahms'sexploration
of harmonic double meaning as a basis for formal development. Orientation around A becomes increasinglyplausible
as Brahms steers the theme into the dominant key at m. 8
and preparesVariation I so that the head motive reentersin

an A-minor context. Example 16 illustrates. Still, for a discussion focused on the idea of double meaning, it is important to acknowledge cues that continue to implicate A as
dominant. The middle section of the theme begins at m. 9
by immediately transforming A into a dominant seventh
chord even as that A has just been tonicized. Repetitions of a
prominent B -A sigh motive in the first violin join the expanded V7 harmony to highlight this local turn to D minor.
It is not until the motion to the E dominant of m. 12 that
the progression leads back to A for a compressed reprise of
the opening material.
The theme thus consists of a harmonic back-and-forth
that projects through time-one is tempted to say prolongs
-the double meaning embedded within the basic idea. First
we waver between tonic and plagal interpretations of the
opening. Then A emerges as tonic through cadential articulation at m. 8. But Brahms immediately demotes A to the
rank of dominant, only to promote it again to tonic status
with the half cadence on E at m. 12. This final shift is crucial
because, as Daverio observes, the half cadence prepares a

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

84

Adagio

____

madolce

f madolce

FA

_f
arco

pizz.A

61:,

I
(viio)

.iv

cm
, ..

(viio)

dim.

dim.

HM
3

dzm.

dim.

[l
V

4-

IIIi
V

37
i#

El]-

v,

EXAMPLEI6. Brahms, G-major Viola Quintet, ii, 1-16.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

iv

AND HARMONIC AMBIGUITY

85

ar. i

94 ..W
U.

vim

iv

-iv

iIII

FA-

IN BRAHMS

FD]-V

VwIo

IIv

io

EXAMPLE 17.

VV

pizz.

Analysis of G-major Viola Quintet, ii, 1-15.

86

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

reentry of the basic idea, both in the compressed form of m.


13 and in the restatement provided by VariationI. Note the
similarity with previous examples in which linkage is a crucial component of Brahms's double meanings. Here he provides an A-minor context for the reentry of the head motive
at m. 15 not merely through a retransitional E dominant
expansion (mm. 12-14). He also anticipates the A-minor
harmonization specifically through a disguised adumbration
of the head motive, complete with embellishing D-minor iv
chords, at the end of the previous formal section.
Far from an analytical fantasy, then, the idea of a plagal
interpretationemerges concretely. By leading us to hear the
D chord of m. 15 as subdominant, the harmonization retrospectively confirms the double meaning of the original basic
idea. The point is not that the newly explicit A-minor context dictates that the opening itself should be heard solely in
terms of a plagal expansion of A. Rather, the A-minor harmonization of mm. 12-16 retrospectivelysolidifies the idea
that a plagal interpretation of mm. 1-2 is a viable alternative
to a D-minor hearing. Because it is a more conventional option, the D-minor interpretation does not itself requiresimilar retrospectiveconfirmation. Brahms nevertheless also confirms the D-minor perspective as he further develops his
double meaning, above all at the end of the movement where
the ambiguityresolves as part of the attainment of closure.
In addition to its impact on the theme itself, the initial
ambiguityhas a decisive influence on the movement'smiddleground structure.For although we normally interpret details
of harmonic prolongation in relation to an overriding Stufe,
the reverse is also true: local harmonic details may be key
indicators for middleground interpretation.The opening of
the Adagio is a case in point. An interpretationcentered on a
i-V hearing will likely assign the D-minor chord the status
of opening structuraltonic. The emphasis on A that follows,
as either dominant or locally tonicized harmony, will be
heard as part of an expansion of an overriding D Stufe. By
contrast,a plagalhearing is much more likely to readD-minor

as part of an elaborationof a controlling A Stufe.As Example


17 shows, the plagal interpretation results in an extensive
delay of the movement'sD tonic via prolongationof this A.
The prolongation of A shown in Example 17 encourages
us to hear not only the theme but also the entire movement
as part of a tonic delay. As we have seen in the quartet and
trio, this type of extensive delay is characteristicfor Brahms,
yet it is a strategy that is nevertheless remarkablein a variation context. Moreover, in as much as the theme is marked
by a tonal duality, even an interpretation that favors a D
tonic at the outset nevertheless will be colored by its own
sense of delay.That is, the idea of an opening structuraltonic
will still be cast in doubt by secondary resonances of subdominant function for D. It is only at the very end of the
movement that we find an absolutely unequivocal tonic.
Thus the consequences of the plagal versus tonic interpretation differby degree-not by kind.
This structuraldelay is most easily glimpsed through consideration of the beginning of each variation, the formal
juncture that in a more conventional variation movement
would correspondto rearticulationof a tonic in control from
the outset. At the beginning of Variation II, shown in Example 18, the theme returns at the G-D level. This transposition extends the pun of the original version by centering
the plagal side of the double meaning on D as tonic. As was
the case at the entrance of VariationI, Brahms tips the scales
in favorof the plagal interpretationthrough linkage with the
end of the precedingphrase (not shown). The middle section
of VariationI (m. 25) begins like the analogous point in the
theme (m. 9), but Brahms shifts the continuation down a
fifth at m. 26. The result is that the emphasis on A-minor
that served to prepare Variation I shifts to emphasis on D
minor. In terms of middleground structure, however, the
local D tonic that enters at the beginning of VariationII fails
to achieve the status of tonic for the movement's Ursatz.Not
only does it enter in the middle of the form and play off a
pun in which it has some of the character of a dominant.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

"

espress.

f
4iv

EXAMPLE

RHAPSODIC

I8. Brahms, G-major Viola Quintet, ii, 32-34.

It also initiates a variation that quickly merges into a developmental passage that builds to the Adagio's climactic
VariationIII.
At first glance, this climax appears finally to provide the
long-delayed structural tonic. Example 19 reproduces the
relevant passage. For the first time, the re-entry of the basic
idea is preparedby an A dominant so that D has a cleartonic
function. Furthermore,Brahms recomposes the idea so as to
eliminate any internal signals for alternativeinterpretations.
He supports the entire two-measure unit with a tonic pedal
and adjusts the melodic line so that F# remains in the forefront. The problem therefore is not so much tonal as textural. Rather than provide a point of resolution following the
developmental buildup, the tonic articulation falls within a
continuation of that buildup. The formal trajectorywashes
across the tonic articulationand continues to the more secure

IN BRAHMS

87

V-i progressionthat ushers in the final VariationIV (see m.


69 in Example 20). Only here does Brahms allow for the sense
of arrivalthat signals a middlegroundharmonicarticulation.
Part of this sense of arrivalarises from the fact that the
basic idea returns in its original form for the first time since
Variation I (shown in Example 16). Recall that in Variation
I, Brahms contextualizes the idea so as to emphasize the plagal side of its double meaning. At the end of the movement,
he takes advantageof the alternativeside of the duality with
D in the forefront as tonic. Yet, as Daverio points out,
Brahms saves a still more forthright resolution of the ambiguity for the closing passage, shown in Example 21: he
confirms the original plagal interpretation even as he simultaneously recomposes that plagal progression so that it centers on D. Just as he coordinates metric and tonal resolution
in the quartet, concerto, and trio, so too does he resolve the
quintet's harmonic duality as a crucial component of closure.

Var. II

FI

32

AND HARMONIC AMBIGUITY

DEVELOPMENTS

OF TONIC/PLAGAL

DUALITY

Part of my argument in support of adopting notions of


metric ambiguity as a heuristic framework for interpretation
of the quartet, concerto, and trio centers on similarities
among these works. Is there a similar intertextual basis for
assertions of harmonic ambiguity in the quintet's Adagio?
While the Adagio's idiosyncratic characterwould appearto
make such intertextualresonances unlikely,Brahms develops
a similar double meaning in at least one other composition.
Example 22 outlines the possibility to hear the theme of the
B-minor rhapsodyin terms of the same tension between i-V
and iv-i# relationships.It also highlights repetitions of three
motivic ideas, labeled X, Y, and Z, whose significance will
become clear momentarily.31
31

Rosen (1990, 105-08) hearsa similarambiguityin the opening of the


G-minor Rhapsody,op. 79, no. 2. David Lewin focuses on the D-astonic side of the G/D dualitythat Rosen hearsin his alternativereading

88

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

III
Var.
51

If

,.=1

" 3''r-

.-i
III

,.

33
Ni

M1 ,1w,

LTLM I.

L
A_3 __ IIIT7

It)4

I..

..

If

64

mf3
o

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1 1

67
1

ill

piz .

V
llh

0.4

..l

H I

"
,

ALAALA

[',l

,1

EXAMPLE

19. Brahms, G-major Viola Quintet, ii, 51-53.

The opening unharmonized F# provides yet another example of Brahms'sproclivity for moments of structuralindeterminacy, a form of openness that functions in the tonal
dimension like the quasi-fermatas do in the rhythmic diof the passage in Lewin 1990, 16-18. Aspects of my analysis of the Bminor rhapsody were first stimulated by my participation in a workshop
led by Frank Samarotto at the Institute on Schenkerian Theory and
Analysis at the Mannes Institute for Advanced Studies in Music
Theory, 27-30 June, 2002. I would like to acknowledge both Professor
Samarotto and the other members of the workshop for their influence
on my own interpretation. In particular, Professor Samarotto drew my
attention to (and provided me with transcriptions of) Schenker's unpublished graph of the rhapsody in the Oster Collection, while Richard
Cohn first alerted me to the idea of a plagal relationship at the work's
opening with F# sounding as tonic. Samarotto has since published an
analysis of the rhapsody in Samarotto 2003, which reproduces part of
Schenker's sketch.

mension of our other examples.As was the case in the quintet's Adagio, Brahms avoids an intermediateharmony,whose
presence would tip the scales in favor of either B or F# as
tonic.32Instead, the first explicit harmony,viio7 on the second half of m. 1, tonicizes F# but itself resolves to an F#
dominant that tonicizes B. From that point until the F# arrival in m. 4, Brahms simply alternatesF# and B, which mirror each other in the same tonic/plagal duality as the
Adagio's D-A alternation.
The tonal ambiguity again raises two primary issues: is
B or F# the main middleground harmony? and does this
middleground harmony function in the foreground key of
32

It is again important to note that the absence of an intermediate harmony alone will not necessarily give rise to harmonic ambiguity. See
the opening progressions of the first movements of the quintet and
Second Symphony for counter examples, as mentioned in note 29.

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

89

Var. IV
66

FD

-1

espress.

Vss

p dim.dim.

ppzz.

Vdim.
EXAMPLE

20.

Brahms, G-major Viola Quintet, ii, 66-70.

B or F#? As for the first question, F# receivesmetric emphasis and forms the goal for the opening phrase, factors that
support an interpretation of F# as controlling Stufe. Yet
Schenker indicates departure from a B tonic in his unpublished sketches of the rhapsody in the Oster Collection.33
The question of key orientation is crucialto harmonic interpretation. A reading oriented around the key of B (like
Schenker's)has either B or F# availableas possible points of
departure.It is not unusual for Brahmsto focus on the dominant of a key as an alternative to more conventional tonic
control. A reading oriented around the key of F#, by contrast,is almost certain to hear F# itself as middlegroundStufe.
33

Schenkerunpublished,file 34, folio 62r. Samarotto(2003), by contrast,


interpretsF# as middlegroundpoint of departure.He, like Schenker,
neverthelesshearsthe opening in the key of B.

In no piece that I know does Brahms begin with an extended


prolongation of subdominant harmony, although he does
occasionally depart from a local IV, as in the finale of the
Second Piano Concerto.34

34

The possibility to hear the opening in relation to either B or F# as tonal


center arises in part from the equivalent pattern of half and whole steps
within the upper and lower tetrachords of the natural minor scale. The
X motive, in other words, can function as either 5-4-3-2 in B or 8-7-6-5
in F#. Brahms presents the same tetrachordal pattern as the opening
motive in his F-minor Clarinet Sonata, op. 120, no. 1, where emphasis
on 5 via a 5-6-5 neighbor pattern tips the scales in favor of an 8-7-6-5
interpretation. This connection with the sonata provides further support for the idea of a bivalent opening in the rhapsody in which F#
competes with B for tonic status. For a discussion of the impact of the
sonata's opening gesture on the form of the entire first movement, see
Smith 1998.

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

90

74

?,?

V,

?
f

w I L
-0

o
I
_L

f'

-----

--

_
fT

limb

,no
,

II

IV -

FD-]pV
EXAMPLE 21.

IV

Brahms, G-major Viola Quintet,ii, 74-80.

Clarification of these issues emerges at the A section's


codetta at m. 16. The symmetry of the minor-thirds cycle
that ensues at m. 5 serves to transpose the same set of
tensions to the A/D and C/F levels at mm. 5 and 9 respectively.35It is not until the cycle breaks with the arrival of
V/F# at m. 10 that the harmonic picture comes into focus.
The following F# tonicization retrospectively supports the
idea that F# forms the harmonic point of departure,as summarized in Example 23; it also supports the idea of a plagal
relationship embedded within a harmonically bivalent opening. Note that the materials of the opening return in the
35

10

The thematic repetitions at mm. 5 and 9 perhaps tilt slightly toward


tonic status for D and F compared to the opening phrase's more ambiguous balance. The E minor and G minor chords at the ends of
mm. 4 and 8 function like dominant preparation harmonies in the respective keys of D and F. Along these lines, note the prominent G? and
Bk top-voice pitches that these chords support, thus denying A and C
their proper leading tones.

codetta but now forthrightly in the key of F#. Example 22


highlights this development of the viio7/F# and B harmonies
and also the repetitions of the X, Y, and Z motives. Moreover, Brahms eventually alters the F#-minor tonic of m. 16
with a Picardy third at mm. 20 and 22, thus recreatingthe
special flavor of the opening F# harmony. He once again
makes explicit what initially may have seemed to be the less
likely interpretationof his opening material.
In light of this F# emphasis, however, one might wonder
whether what I am describing is actually a case of ambiguity.
Doesn't the idea that Brahms eventually confirms the plagal
interpretation contradict the notion that the opening is
somehow bivalent?The answer is no, at least if we remain
sensitive to the temporal perspective from which we make
analytical statements. Even after a cadence and a codetta
define F# as tonic-including the F# harmonies of the opening four measures-this overall evaluation of the A section
remainsretrospective.It does not invalidate an interpretation

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC


FO

F#

Agitato

ED
--

F#- i

i#

vii?7

iv

1#

AND HARMONIC AMBIGUITY

CO
I

1i

vi7

T5

[' aug.6

iaug.6

v7 i

'

&

94 9 44&4

91

iv

vi7/7

IN BRAHMS

&

&4 &4 & I- &4

iv
iv

4--

-- '

&

ivv
vii?7
EXAMPLE 22.

mii7i

Brahms, B-minor Rhapsody, 1-21.

that hears an element of indeterminacy within the opening


phrase as thatphraseemergeswithin a morelocaltemporalcontext. In other words, Brahms explicitly defines F# as tonic
only after a good bit of the rhapsody has unfolded and after
the opening statements of F# have been set in competition
with B for tonal centricity. Under less idiosyncraticcircum-

stances, not only will a tonic triad typically enter at the


outset but the tonal relations that immediately ensue will
confirm that triad'stonicness.
In addition to its influence on the characterof the A section, the rhapsody'sdouble meaning also influences the form
of the whole. As Example 24 highlights, the descending

MUSIC

92
1

i vii7

THEORY

iv

SPECTRUM

28 (2006)

i# etc.

12

iV
EXAMPLE 23.

VI

16

aug.6

Vi

Vi

Analysis ofB-minor Rhapsody, 1-16.

major-thirds cycle that grows out of the initial F# Stufe


further develops the plagal side of the material'sbivalence.
At each stage of the cycle-the prolongations of D and Bb
beginning at mm. 22 and 39 respectively--the main expanded chord functions as a local tonic. Evidence of this
new-found clarity emerges from a glance at the D-major
phrase of mm. 22-29. The common-tone modulation from
F#, the bass emphasis on D, the function of D as departure
and goal for each repetition of the opening idea, and the fact
that Brahms treats the top-voice F# as a stable entity rather
than as a leading tone all signal D's tonic status. Note also
the unequivocal D-minor harmonic progression in the
phrase that follows (mm. 30-33). Brahms treats the Bb Stufe
at m. 39 similarly.The cycle neverthelesscontinues to hint at
the alternativeside of the duality through the G-minor emphasis at mm. 26 and 34-35. In contrast to the more nearly
balanced double meaning of the opening, however, this local
emphasis on G hardly disturbs D's tonic status.The D dominant of m. 26, for instance, functions unambiguously as
V7/iv in D.
It is only in the process by which the rhapsody arrives at
its long delayed B Stufe that the scales tip in favor of the
tonic side of the duality, that is, the V-i rather than i#-iv relationships of the D-major and Bb-majorpassages. Characteristically Brahms bypasses opportunities for tonal resolution and sustains tension throughout the ABA' form of mm.
1-93. One consequence of the major-thirdscycle is that the

tonic delay of the opening extends across the B section and


into the return of the A material (see m. 67 in Example 25).
(I interpretthe opening section in terms of a tonal delay regardlessof the ambiguity of key orientation I hear in the initial phrase.In contrast to Schenker,I contend that the initial
four-measurephrase expands F# even if the phrase is heard
in the key of B minor.) Note that Brahms eschews a stereotypical V-i progression at the reprise,a logical place for him
to resolve both the tonal delay and the ambiguity that gives
rise to it. Instead, the Bb tonicization culminates on a backrelating F? dominant in mm. 60-63. The following shift to
Gk is all that Brahms provides to preparethe thematic return
at m. 67. It is with this Gb that Brahms completes the pattern of descending major thirds:F#-D-B6-Gb.
This idiosyncratic formal hinge allows Brahms to maintain ratherthan resolve the ambiguity of the opening material. It would have been easy to secure tonic function for B:
it would requireonly an arrivalon an F# dominant followed
by a resolution to a B chord at the thematic return.Instead,
any connection of Gb/F# to the key of B emerges only retrospectively.In this light, the entrance of the Gksonority in a
Bb-majorcontext becomes crucial.Moreover,since the naked
F# of the repriseemerges seamlessly out of the Gb/F# sonority, it can easily be heard as part of a continuation of that
harmony.Perhaps the theme does begin with an implied F#
chord ratherthan an implied B tonic. Nevertheless even this
implied F# chord retains an element of ambiguity. Since

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

AND HARMONIC

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

sostenuto sempre
22

i-i

V7/G

]
itof

flipsideof the duality

30

V/G]
oco t.---------------n
36

tempo

J
_"

B1
EXAMPLE 24.

iv

Brahms, B-minor Rhapsody, 22-42.

etc.

93

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

94

--------8V9---------------------

59

a.

ow
LI

64"-

r)

kv

9 :- V ,"''- r 1,I "" ', , I


ff

'

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11
,

t
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Recomposition
begins
69

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I I J J -'-'

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?
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Bmnr

retain

Cadentialmaeil eunsi

EXAMPLE25. Brahms, B-minor Rhapsody, 59-80.

-mnr

YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW: SOME INSTANCES OF RHYTHMIC

Brahms prepares the other repeats of the opening material through


similarly idiosyncratic means, which likewise appear designed to avoid
tonal clarity. One way to hear the repeat of the A section at m. 29, for
instance, is as a reversal of the common-tone modulation from F# to D.
Since this would reverse a modulation in which the third-related chords
were both heard as tonics, we might tend to infer an F# tonic from the
repeat of the opening unharmonized F#. Yet it is also possible to hear a
rebeginning on an implied B tonic following the D-major close. The
preparation for the large-scale return of the A section at m. 129 of the
compound ternary form is perhaps even more unusual. Brahms shifts
from the B-major closing tonic of his contrasting middle section to a
B-minor 6 chord and then launches directly into the unharmonized F#
of the A-section repeat. The progression has a number of possible in6/4)_5/3;B: V6/4_V 5/; etc.
terpretations including: F#: iv6/4-i ; B: i(cons.

AMBIGUITY

IN BRAHMS

95

uing with C? in the pattern of minor thirds, he absorbs A


into a key-defining MVII-V-i progression.This progression
helps to cancel the plagal side of the duality in favor of dominant function for F#, and it redirects the A material so that
the cadential progression that originally provided F# closure
returnsin B at m. 79. The closing passage,which once retrospectively supported the F#-as-tonic side of the duality, now
returns in expanded form as part of an unambiguous assertion of B's tonicity.

Brahms's"retransition"avoids preparationfor either F# or B


as local tonic, the function of an inferredF#-is it dominant
or tonic?-remains unspecified. Thus even in the case of a
formaljuncture that conventionally serves as a point of resolution, we again see Brahms's commitment to strategiesdevised to sustain double meaning. The similarityhere with the
entrance of each successive variation in the quintet'sAdagio
is striking.36
If Brahms withholds tonal resolution at the moment of
reprise, then where does the rhapsody'sseminal ambiguity
finally give way to the tonic? Because the first phrase of the
A materialreturns unaltered (mm. 67-70), we find ourselves
at m. 70 in the same harmonic dilemma we were in at the
analogous location in the A section (m. 4). We still do not
know,within this local context, whether F# is tonic or dominant or, pace Schenker,whether F# is even a controllingharmony. Here, as in the quintet, the closing passage corrects
several anomalies of the opening as part of the process by
which it shifts to a univalent tonal orientation with F# as
dominant.
In particular,notice that the exact restatementof A material breaks off at m. 70 with the arrivalof a ii06/5 chord, a
harmonywhose very absence contributedto F#'s potential to
function as tonic. Brahms then progresses,as he had at the
opening, to an A chord at m. 75. But now instead of contin36

AND HARMONIC

CODETTA

Having explored in detail a number of instances of


Brahmsian double meaning, I conclude simply by reemphasizing the key points of this essay. Despite my conviction
that ambiguity constitutes a core concept for Brahmsian criticism, I heed Carl Schachter's and Kofi Agawu's admonitions for us to avoid mystifying passages of tonal music that
are clear and analyzable.37Perhaps the competing interpretations I have offered fail Agawu's litmus test for ambiguity:
that each be "equallyplausible"in its given context. Nevertheless, I have highlighted Brahms's propensity for musical
bivalence and for equivocal contexts. Recall the stage-setting
gestures like the quasi-fermatasin the quartet,concerto, and
trio and the unharmonized F#s in the rhapsody.Or think of
the absence of intermediate harmonies in the rhapsody and
quintet. It is these elements among others that make possible
double meanings that approach Agawu's state of equilibrium. Moreover, Brahms helps to balance the scales of ambiguity by tipping his formal processes towards those very
meanings that may at first have seemed slightly less weighty,
only to tip back and forth again and again. The result is a
process that effaces the very hierarchy of alternatives that
Agawu insists makes "allsuch situations decidable."38Indeed
an instinct for musical triangulation is a Brahmsianhallmark
37
38

Schachter 1990 and Agawu 1994.


Agawu 1994, 10?

MUSIC THEORY SPECTRUM 28 (2006)

96

-the reason that analyzing Brahms's ambiguities can never


stand far from simply analyzing Brahms.

Imbrie, Andrew. 1973. " 'Extra' Measures and Metrical


Ambiguity in Beethoven."In BeethovenStudies.Edited by
Alan Tyson. New York:Norton: 45-66.

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