Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic, 8 April 2016.
University of Michigan Graduate Music Research Conference, 20 March 2016.
This study explores the hermeneutic efficacy of topic theory in the context of 20th-century American music by theorizing Paul Creston’s adaptation of contemporary plainchant practice as a recurring topic in his compositions. The paper considers the definitions of “topic” offered by Leonard Ratner, Robert Hatten, Raymond Monelle, Michael Klein, and Danuta Mirka. In doing so, it frames Creston’s indexing of chant first as a generative style—furnishing the textural and thematic content of homogeneous works—and second as a topic that injects this style into distinct spaces of Creston’s larger, heterogeneous compositions. Interpreting Creston’s chant as a topic per se is justified according to Hatten because of its productivity, and to Lawrence Kramer because it opens hermeneutic windows and topical fields that construct interpretive frameworks for narrative.
As a Catholic organist in New York, Creston was familiar with the plainchant practice revived by the Benedictines of Solesmes. This paper traces sympathetic criticism through Creston’s two books about rhythm and a treatise on chant phraseology by the Benedictine André Mocquereau. Among the numerous musical examples it discusses, this study cites one of Leopold Stokowski’s rare, annotated scores, which labels an instance of Creston’s chant topic, “Canto Gregoriano.” In a culminating analysis of “Introduction and Song,” Symphony No. 2, the primary theme exhibits the subversion of meter, vacillation of pulse subdivisions, and orchestrational texture prototypical of the chant topic. Interpreting these features as expressing a persona—who traverses a sequence of events that signify stasis, loss, and reconciliation—proffers an apologia for the fecundity of topic theory in relation to 20th-century music.