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  • Arnold Whittall


‘Motive’ or ‘motif’ has long been a familiar term in writing about music, not least because many writers enjoy the word-play available when a composer's possible motivation for inventing and elaborating specific motivic materials is under discussion. The extent to which motives reach beyond melody into harmony has arguably become a more conscious concern of composers who have moved beyond traditional tonality, and some of the consequences of such concerns are considered here, in relation to recent works by two leading British composers, George Benjamin (b. 1960) and his one-time student Christian Mason (b. 1984).



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1 Schoenberg, Arnold, The Musical Idea and the Logic, Technique, and Art of its Presentation, ed. and trans. Carpenter, Patricia and Neff, Severine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 365.

2 A vocal score of Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence is published by Faber Music. Scores of Mason's Man Made and the other works discussed here are available from Breitkopf und Härtel.

3 These terms are discussed in the Glossary to my Introduction to Serialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), under ‘Pantonality’ and ‘Suspended Tonality’ (pp. 275 and 277).

4 Examples from MAN MADE: Music by Christian Mason, © 2018 by Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden; Texts © David Harsent, 2017. ‘Icefield’ reproduced by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

5 See Whittall, Arnold, ‘Questioning the Sound: The Music of Christian Mason’, The Musical Times, 158, no. 1939 (Summer 2017), p. 96.

6 Christian Mason, note with the score of Aimless Wonder (2017).

7 Examples from LESSONS IN LOVE AND VIOLENCE: Music by George Benjamin, © 2017 by Faber Music Ltd; Text © 2017 by Martin Crimp; Reproduced by permission of the publishers; All rights reserved.

8 Benjamin, George, Les règles du jeu: entretiens avec Éric Denut (Paris: Musica Falsa, 2004), p. 131.

9 Whittall, Arnold, ‘Rotations and Reflections: The Musical Presence of George Benjamin’, The Musical Times, 155, no. 1927 (Summer 2014), pp. 7184.

10 Benjamin, George, ‘Musical Shape on the Largest Scale’ in Music and Shape, ed. Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel and Prior, Helen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 94.

11 See Tymoczko, Dmitri, A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

12 Pople, Anthony, ‘The Musical Language of Wozzeck’, in The Cambridge Companion to Berg (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.153.

13 For full discussion of Berg's harmonic symbology, see Perle, George, The Operas of Alban Berg 2: Lulu (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 190–93 and Jarman, Douglas, Alban Berg: Lulu (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 90.

14 This essay is rooted in ideas about thematicism and perception that pervade Pierre Boulez's later Collège de France lectures (Leçons de musique (Paris: Bourgois, 2005).


  • Arnold Whittall


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