Formal jests: The sonata-form scherzo in Mendelssohn’s mature chamber music

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One of the most striking aspects of Mendelssohn's scherzi is his unusual propensity for sonata form in this movement type. Yet in referencing sonata construction, the composer frequently appears to be playing against its norms, taking delight in confounding expectations in the movement's formal twists and turns, as if this ambiguous and ever-shifting relation were itself a crucial part of the aesthetic quality of the music. The present article examines the manipulations of form present in the sonata-orientated scherzi of Mendelssohn's mature chamber works from the period 1837–45: those of the String Quartets Op. 44 Nos 2 and 3 and the Piano Trios Op. 49 and Op. 66. In doing so, it makes several significant contributions to current debates about sonata form. First, while continuing the incursion of Formenlehre into the nineteenth century, it brings discussion of sonata form round to address a movement type – the scherzo – not normally considered in recent discussions. Second, the interaction between different formal types posited by these movements has numerous similarities with the dialogic approach foregrounded by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy's sonata theory. The playful ambiguities suggested by Mendelssohn's scherzi seem particularly suited to a theory in which formal meaning is understood to arise from the productive tension between expectation and realisation, abstract generic norm and particular instantiation. Still, much of Mendelssohn's subtle manipulation of form occurs on the smaller-scale level of syntax, and one of this study's final implications concerns the interrelation between top-down, intentional models and bottom-up, generative approaches to form.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMusic Analysis
Early online date7 Jan 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Jan 2022


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