I am reading Dr. B.-G. Cohrs's note [C] on the (fascinating) history of the Symphonisches Präludium, now commonly attributed to Anton Bruckner. I was a little mystified by the following remark:

The form is quite unique — all three themes are merely lyrical [...]

Is this standard terminology in music analysis? What other types of themes are there? Why is it unusual to use only entirely lyrical themes?

I would especially appreciate answers that are sourced, so that I can do study beyond what can be addressed here.


[C] Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, Symphonisches Präludium — composed by Anton Bruckner? Available online through the Bruckner Society of America.

3 Answers 3


Often in music there are competing moods. In a typical sonata movement, for instance, the opening theme is usually more aggressive in nature---think of the opening of Beethoven 5, for instance. This is then balanced by a more lyrical, song-like theme. Writers of the past would call these "masculine" and "feminine" themes, but such gendered language is now rarely used.

Your writer is saying that the Bruckner movement is odd because it lacks this standard dichotomy. Instead of a lyrical theme balancing out an aggressive theme, all of the themes are of a more cantabile nature.

For sample texts, consider Charles Rosen's Sonata Forms (or his The Classical Style). It's a bit out of date, having been superceded by Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory, but it gives a good glimpse into this kind of thinking.

These are scholarly sources, but honestly, most form texts would discuss this to some extent.

Regarding taxonomies of themes, there's really no better source than Caplin's Classical Form. But this deals less with "aggressive" vs. "lyrical" and more with actual formal construction.

If you want two really interesting articles on these aggressive/lyrical issues, check out:

  • Hepokoski, "Fiery-Pulsed Libertine or Domestic Hero? Strauss's Don Juan Reinvestigated," in Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work
  • Monahan, "Rethinking the Alma Theme," Journal of the American Musicological Society, 2011
  • I was indeed aware of the 'masculine/feminine' dichotomy between first and second themes (especially in the classical period). I am very interested in formal construction, so I will certainly look into the Caplin work.
    – Remy
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 0:10
  • Although in Beethoven Violin Sonata in F major, 'Spring', the first theme is softer than the second theme in the first movement.
    – Divide1918
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 8:58

Given only the isolated quotation, there is another interpretation that complements @Richard's. By "merely lyrical", I understand Cohrs to be saying that themes can be both lyrical (i.e., melodic) and ... have other additional qualities that serve as compositional material. In the Bruckner case, the themes are "merely" (i.e., "only") lyrical.

What can a theme be in addition to, or instead of, "lyrical"?

Rhythmic themes

@Richard's invocation of Beethoven 5 is outstanding both for its illustration of the lyrical/aggressive dichotomy, but also because the first theme is not lyrical/melodic; rather, the first theme is rhythmic.

The famous opening gesture of Beethoven 5 comprises and eighth rest, three eighth-notes, and a longer note. A look at the first phrase illustrates the point: it's constructed almost entirely from the same four-note rhythmic figure.

Intervallic themes

Again looking to the first theme of Beethoven's fifth, it is very much based around thirds. The opening gesture, of course, features two descending thirds.

X: 1
M: 2/4
K: C minor
L: 1/8
z GGG | !fermata!E4 | z FFF | !fermata!D4 |

And thirds also appear in ascending and descending scalar patterns. For example, Violins I and II in mm. 14–15:

X: 1
M: 2/4
K: C minor
L: 1/8
%%score V1 V2
[V:V1 clef=treble] z ggf | e4 | x4 |
[V:V2 clef=treble] z4 | z EEF | G4 |

Much serial music is also based heavily around intervallic material, tone rows being understood as series of intervals (or interval classes) rather than series of pitches.

Technical themes

Moving away from Beethoven, Chopin's Etudes are built primarily around particular playing techniques. His Op. 10, No. 1, for example, is built entirely of arpeggios. Op. 25, No. 6 is all about double thirds.


Just in addition to Richard's and Aaron's answers I'd like to propose to read the 2 wiki articles about the sonata form and the history of the sonata form and the added links (references).

Both articles confirm the elements of contrast like feminin/masculin and the aspect of dramatic.

Thus, it was thought by Marx that the first theme should be "masculine" – strident, rhythmic, and implying a dissonance – and the second theme group should be drawn more from vocal melody making it "feminine". It is this contrast between "rhythmic" and "singing" that Wagner, in his very influential work On Conducting, argued was at the very core of tension in music . This led to the belief among many interpreters and composers[who?] that texture was the most important contrast and that tempo should be used to emphasize this contrast.



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