Accounting for Topic Theory's Intellectual Heritage: Between Absolutism and the New Musicology

International Musicological Society, Athens, Greece, August 2022.
American Musicological Society
, 12 November 2021.
* Music—Musicology—Interpretation, University of the Arts, Belgrade, Serbia, 21 October 2021.

This paper interprets the rise of topic theory during the last several decades as a reaction to criticisms of musical analysis. The New Musicology moment challenged analysis’s involvement with musical autonomy (Wolff 1987), organicism (Street 1989), and structural processes (McClary 1986, 1991), primarily by unearthing their socio-political contexts (Savage 2010). Citing Lawrence Kramer’s (1990) call to open “hermeneutic windows” between the structural and contextual dimensions of musical works, theorists increasingly analyzed topics as quilting points between form and meaning. As a consequence, topic theory navigates around the same binary that the theory-versus-criticism debates of the 1980s and 90s did, between music and the extramusical: the signature dichotomy of musical absolutism (Dahlhaus 1989). Narrating the intellectual history of topic theory helps to circumnavigate this impasse by reimagining absolute music as an exclusive metaphysics that comes to life whenever musicological discourse marks the boundary between music and its other.

If Leonard Ratner (1980) inspired the modern study of topics (McKay 2007), then it was his student Kofi Agawu (1991) who put topics on a collision course with semiotics and questioned their status as extramusical, describing topics as the “extroversive” complement to “introversive” analysis. Expanding the semiotic approach, Robert Hatten (1994) anchored the legitimacy of topics in the reconstruction of “stylistic competencies.” Drawing from the correlationsim of Peter Kivy—an avowed proponent of Hanslick (Kivy 2000)—Hatten extrapolated minute analytical oppositions onto the disciplinary divide between structuralism and hermeneutics, causing Nicholas Cook (1996) to describe him as a “closet absolutist.” Since then, the signifiers of topicality have proliferated beyond utility as authors have applied Hatten’s flexible definition of topics beyond the common practice period (Echard 2017), to instrumental techniques (Monelle 2012), tonality (Johnson 2017), and even the act of performance (Samuels 2011). I argue that, in each of the accounts surveyed by this study, topics find their conceptual consistency not in a collection of essential properties (as in Frymoyer 2017), but in their linguistic identity as descriptive devices that make musical experience knowable (Kramer 2012). Seen as discursive entities, topics no longer assert their existence by invoking the absolutist ontology of “music itself.”

* This paper appears on the program of the conference in Belgrade under the title, "Topic Theory as a Response to the New Musicology: Navigating the Absolute."