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How to Analyze 18th Century Music Using the Right Metaphors

The French word “galant” connotes elegance, chivalry, and a certain cultured style. In music, the term “Galant” refers to compositions from the mid-1700s, whose power derives largely from their subtle playing with conventions and the expectations of knowledgeable listeners.

A new book, Journeys Through Galant Expositions, by Professor L. Poundie Burstein (The Graduate Center, Hunter College), seeks to reignite the experience of these listeners through the use of  metaphors and approaches that were popular among musicians at the time–specifically, metaphors that relate musical form to “journeys.”  This differs from typical modern approaches to understanding  musical form. Standard modern approaches, which developed during the 19th century, tend to compare parts of musical compositions to a series of imaginary containers. During the 18th century, on the other hand, musicians described the form of music more in relation to how it unfolds in time.

In a recent podcast interview, Burstein used a hypothetical trip from New York to Singapore by way of Paris as an analogy. Each leg of the trip is labeled in terms of its immediate goal, so that even if you are in the air for seven hours and spend only 20 minutes at the Paris airport, you still call it the “Paris leg.” Similarly, 18th century music theorists were concerned with “motions to points” in compositions.

Modern analysis of later classical music often asks questions such as “What key area are we in?”  or “What section of the form are we in?” In contrast, 18th century musicians tended to ask, “Toward what goal are we moving?” As Burstein notes, “This attitude really promotes living in the moment.” 

In his book, Burstein writes that finding the best metaphors to describe music “is always a struggle, one that lies at the crux between theory and practice.” Efforts to “heighten awareness of facets of musical composition” inevitably rely on “imperfect verbal and visual tools.” 

But the right metaphor can “help us come to grips with a specific style.” He hopes his book “will inspire people to question the metaphors we use  . . . to consider what people wrote at the time who lived the music, composed and improvised it, and to take those writings seriously–not as just for backing up what we already think, but for reevaluating how we may think about music in such a light.”

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Journeys Through Galant Expositions
Oxford University Press, 2020

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L. Poundie Burstein (Professor, Music) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Bonus Content

"L. Poundie Burstein" (The Nikhil Hogan Show)