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Formalism Essay

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Formalism gives us an understanding into the complexities of the musical form. It helps us understand the musical form on a purely intellectual level of critical analysis. If we take old musicology for example, it is clear to see that it completely neglects the historical aspects of music whilst deeming context and expression unnecessary. In this sense, formalism is not always the best way to gain understanding into the context of a piece of music and my comparing this method with new contextualism I will discuss how it is a more efficient method of analysis.

The concept of formalism is that a piece of music’s meaning is entirely determined by its form, failing to take into account the intentions of the composer. Roland Barthes describes this perfectly in his 1967 text, ‘The Death of the Author’ which to summarise, basically describes how once a text has been written and published, the authors identity including historical content, political views, ethnicity or any other personal aspects completely fly out of the window. Once the work has been finished, their intention no longer matters and interpretation completely lies within the eyes of the beholder. Whilst Barthes’ work was influenced by written works, it can also be applied to music and the context is still completely relevant.

Founded in 1934, the ‘American Musicological Society’ was established to study the scientific form of music, as a society, they study pieces on a purely scholarly level. If we take Schenker for example, he analysed music on the level of harmony and form, however, this can be seen as quite restricted as a form of analysis as once again, the identity of the music is being disregarded, which eliminates the sole purpose of the music in the first place. The composers haven’t written the music to be torn apart at the seams, they have written the music for entertainment purposes, for others to enjoy playing or listening to. If we take just the simple autonomy of the score, it does not provide enough information to analyse the music. Historical background is required if we are to fully understand the music. The score in a sense is just the skeleton, for example, as humans, we cannot exist as a skeleton; we need organs, muscles, flesh and so on to be who we are.

If we take a look at modernism, which is analysis purely based on formalism from the early 20th century to the early 1980’s, it looks at score based understanding with syntax of how the music itself was made, once again referring back to Schenker who reduced scores to their core foundations so as to analyse the simplest form of the music, which allowed for greater understanding of structure and harmony. Now, if we look at post-modernism (1980’s onwards), it looks more at new musicology, which focuses on context and meaning, taking into consideration; new historicism, gender, politics and social contexts. If we gain a socio-historical understanding of a piece, we can understand its existence and answer questions which formalism cannot. If we take Mozart for example, he was assigned to write for rich households and many of his pieces has the purpose of accompanying upper-class dances so with this in mind, had Mozart been in a different time and place, his music may have been considerably dissimilar to what we know as a result of different circumstantial impacts, so in this way, his music as we know it is extremely applicable to the context of his personal life.

Whilst formalism exists on an intellectual, scientific and mathematical basis, applying the features of practical performance and identity reveal limitations of this method of analysis. The way a performance is executed is entirely subjective on a number of different things, including whom the piece is performed by, the audience receiving the performance and how the music is understood, in general, it is entirely down to individual interpretations. If we take a more modern piece such as Burton Lane’s ‘Old Devil Moon’, written for the musical ‘Finian’s Rainbow’, it is originally a very slow and moving song. Over the years a number of different renditions of the song have been recorded by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, however, in 1999, jazz-pop artist Jamie Cullum took this song and interpreted it in his own way, drastically increasing the speed and making it a lot more upbeat. The beginning of the song has the same slow feel with soft violins, like the original, however, soon after, upbeat drums and trumpets with syncopated rhythms and strong jazz chords are introduced and the speed of the song is almost doubled, effectively making it sound like a whole new piece of music. In the same way, Glenn Gould is known for having vast, eccentric interpretations, i.e. changing completely the way in which the music is performed, taking it out of the conventional performance spectrum, changing the very nature of the works, demonstrating just how important context is in understanding the work itself.

If we take a look at Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, it was originally composed as a ballet and has since been more conventionally performed in a concert hall as opposed to the original setting it was intended for. This aspect of the piece’s biography is vital to analysis aspects as whilst formalism will describe its structure and form, ‘The Rite of Spring’ was purposefully composed around the rhythms and movements of the dancers it was written for so that the dancers and music were synchronised, and in this sense, formalism ignores the essential historical context of Stravinsky’s intentions and methods of composition. This is a prime example of exactly why music cannot be exclusively examined on the skeletal score due to the mere fact that music is subject to interpretation on each individual performance. Formalist analysis shows more limitations in this way because the actual identity of the piece presents knowledge about its origins. Another thing to look at would be the political context of Stravinsky himself. At one point, he had the ideology that he was “doing for music what Mussolini was doing for politics” which is an extremely bold statement to make. By this, it is safe to assume that Stravinsky meant he was playing a very important role in the world of music, one that may in fact have been revolutionary. Timing is absolutely essential when taking this into consideration. At one point he wanted to move to Italy for the sake of his musical works. Now of course to common knowledge, a bit later on, Mussolini collaborated with Hitler, causing much controversy during World War II, and as a result, Stravinsky



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