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Meter in French and Italian Opera

Author: Nicholas J. Shea
Thesis advisor: Christopher Wm. White (website)

Abstract: Current and historical methods of metric analysis often assume that the first of two concurrent and equal-duration pulses is stronger than the second. This, however, is not the case in all repertoires. For example, it has been shown that Verdi’s midcentury operas often place emphasis on even-numbered beats (Rothstein 2011). This paper shows this metric trend to be even more prevalent in a corpus of nineteenth-century operatic excerpts (1809–1859).

I present a formalized decision tree that classifies phrases according to anacrusis length and prosodic accent, showing where large-scale metric accents fall within a phrase. This model produces three metric types which align with Rothstein’s previous work. Compositional and historical features (e.g., language, premiere date, librettist, etc.) were tracked alongside type to determine whether preferences for certain metric forms were more prevalent in certain contexts. This indeed was the case. For instance, use of even-beat-emphasis meter increases over time, although odd-beat-emphasis meter remains most common. Individual composers also show a significantly distinguishable preference toward each type of meter. These results not only confirm that the highest concentration of even-beat-emphasis meter occurs in Verdi’s midcentury operas, but that Verdi is the primary user of this type overall. Language and composer nationality do not significantly affect an excerpt's metric type; only Verdi shows the most distinction in these areas. With these findings, I argue against using nationalist language to identify metric types (e.g., Franco-Italian meter and German meter) and instead propose a more nuanced understanding of nineteenth-century metric conventions.

Some findings:

  • German meter is most prominent metric type during this period [SLIDE 3]

  • Verdi is the primary user of Franco-Italian meter [SLIDE 4] 

  • French-language operas rarely use Franco-Italian meter [SLIDE 5]


Decision Trees: Determining Metric Type

Handout: Meter in French and Italian Opera (NECMT)

Poster: SMT 2017

Selected Bibliography and Related Sources:

Allanbrook, Wye J. Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Giger, Andreas. Verdi and the French Aesthetic: Verse, Stanza, and Melody in Nineteenth-Century Opera. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Klorman, Edward. Mozart’s Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Lerdahl, Fred, and Ray Jackendoff. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.

Rothstein, William. “Metrical Theory and Verdi’s Midcentury Operas.” Dutch Journal of Music Theory 16, no. 2 (2011): 93–111.

Temperley, David. “End-Accented Phrases: An Analytical Exploration.” Journal of Music Theory 47 (2003): 125–154.

Wilson, Andrew. “Dual-Aspect Meter: A Theory Metrical Consonance, Dissonance, Weight, and Variety.” PhD diss. City University of New York, 2016.

VanHandel, Leigh. “National Metrical Types in Nineteenth Century Art Song.” Empirical Musicology Review 4 (2009): 134–145.

Content ©Nicholas Shea, unless otherwise cited.

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