Timbre and Metric Form
in the Scherzo of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7

Leah Frederick (Indiana University)
Nicholas Shea (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Joseph Jakubowski (Washington University in St. Louis)
Coordinating Professor:
Richard Cohn (Yale)
Presented at the SMT 2016 Graduate Student Workshop


Slides: Timbre and Metric Form in the Scherzo of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7

Summary: Our task for the 2016 Society of Music Theory Graduate Student Workshop is to investigate meter in the Scherzo of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, with an emphasis on the trio (mm. 93–173). Cohn (2001) examines the end of this section (specifically mm. 155–156 and mm. 159–162) to demonstrate how his “ski-hill graphs,” a graphical representation of duple and triple divisions of levels of pulse, can be used to define “metric spaces” in music. Here, Cohn shows how meter in different instrument groups can be qualified as occupying a distinct metric space, which can then be deemed as closely or distantly related in terms of their proximity to one another on a network. An example of this is in mm. 159–60, where the meter expressed by the violin (space B on the network) is adjacent, and therefore closely related, to that of the winds (C). The proximity of these spaces then shifts to a more distant relationship in mm. 161–62, where the meter of the Violin now occupies a more remote metric space than before (violins: A, winds: C). [Slides 1-3 below]

In our take on the Trio section (Poco meno mosso, mm. 93–173), we track surface-level metric conflicts. Like Cohn, we focus on the role of timbre in this section. Instrumental groups not only conflict with others, they also “swap” or “exchange” pulse groupings with other instruments. These swaps delineate sections, motives, and ultimately form. Swapping is most salient at the level of the half note/dotted-half note pulse, and most often occurs between the large instrumental families (winds versus strings). For instance, in mm. 98-104 the winds project a dotted-half pulse against a half-note pulse in the strings. These timbral groups swap pulse groupings in mm. 105-115: the strings now project a dotted-half note pulse, while the winds take over the dotted-half pulse.

Two particular motives strongly correlate with the dotted-half and half-note pulse layers. These motives are often present alongside the two-against-three metric dissonance of half and dotted-half note pulse layers, adding another layer to the sense of metric, timbral, and motivic contrast. There are three separate cases of no conflict at this level. In these situations, individual rhythmic motives that have previously stood for their respective grouping (half or dotted-half) appear in uncontested form and are allowed to unequivocally state their metric identity. In mm. 116-123 the half-note pulse and its motive stand uncontested, and in mm. 138–141 and 149–152 the dotted half pulse and its motive appear alone.

Direct and indirect metric conflicts pervade the Trio from its beginning to the retransition into the Scherzo proper. The most prominent and significant conflict occurs in the final moments of the trio (mm. 155–162). There, a multitude of distinct metric events generate the highest level of metric conflict thus far: a triple hemiola. Our findings augment Cohn’s (2001) analysis of this section to show that at least five separate meters exchange groupings across the metric space, and that these exchanges occur among distant pulse levels. These exchanges bring together previously defined associations of meter, timbre, and motive before the formal return of the Scherzo. [Slides 4-6 below]

Slide design ©Leah Frederick, Indiana University

Selected Bibliography and Related Sources:

Cohn, Richard. “Complex Hemiolas, Ski-Hill Graphs and Metric Spaces.” Music Analysis 20 (2001): 295–326.

Hasty, Christopher. Meter as Rhythm. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Krebs, Harald. Fantasy Pieces: Metrical Dissonance in the Music of Robert Schumann. Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

Content ©Nicholas Shea, unless otherwise cited.