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 am looking for sources that discuss such matters. Do standard textbooks (or other scholarly sources) on large form in classical music address these distinctions? Are there any other places where I could find a more detailed taxonomy of themes in classical music?


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


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 It's a bit out of date, having been superceded by Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory, but it gives a good glimpse into this kind of thinking.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 Jan 5 '18 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 Dec 29 '19 at 8:58

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