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Forms of stability and instability in Schoenberg’s String Trio, op. 45 De Vito, Joy Evangeline


It has long been acknowledged that Schoenberg's compositions, while exploring the new resources of twelve-tone music, are strongly influenced by, and indeed reflect, traditional approaches to composition. However, many have found it difficult to ascribe to the String Trio elements of a traditional compositional style. The piece is instead heard as a series of contrasting musical ideas that are juxtaposed with one another. This paper will show that while the "surface" of the Trio has elements of discontinuity there persist several unifying factors. The String Trio is shown to be structured around a contrast between stability and instability, these two poles being associated with different characteristic features. Stable passages are typified by a balanced construction or determinate formal process, a stable metre (or predictable metric change), continuity in serial derivation, and processes of retrograde and inversion. By contrast, unstable passages generally feature many different musical ideas, metric complexity and ambivalent phrase structure. These unstable passages often lead away from, or towards, the stable passages through the gradual processes of liquidation and transition and lessen the sense of juxtaposition between contrasting musical ideas. In addition, the process I will call developing liquidation allows the characteristics of a musical idea to be developed at the same time that the previously established stable musical idea is being liquidated. The formal types of stability and instability will be explored through analyses of individual passages in the String Trio. It will be shown that passages characterized by stability are structured in a similar manner throughout the Trio, and that unstable passages also share their own common structural shapes. This makes it possible to distinguish between the stable and unstable forms and also creates elements of cohesion in the Trio.

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