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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 2021


This article interrogates the formal and expressive roles of the opening horn-call topic in Thomas Adès's Piano Quintet (2001). Although William Caplin describes the relationship of topics to form as ‘rather tenuous’, he notes that some topics have a ‘likely’ formal relation.1 Within this, he includes the rising horn call as an initiating function. Drawing upon Charles Jencks’ influential concept of double coding, which describes a sign's ‘attempt to communicate with both the public and a concerned minority’,2 I show how the Piano Quintet's horn-call opening satisfies, on one level, the familiar (tonal) initiating formal function that Caplin describes but, understood in the context of two significant reversals of the horn call's characteristic rising contour to descending horn fifths (the openings of Beethoven's ‘Les Adieux’ sonata and Ligeti's Horn Trio), Adès's opening can be understood as transgressive. This Janus-faced interpretation of the opening bars engages both positively and critically with these references to the past, a double-coded understanding which points to Adès's continued popularity in both academic and concert spheres.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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William Caplin, ‘On the Relation of Musical Topoi to Formal function’, Eighteenth Century Music, 2, no. 1 (2005), p. 115.


Charlesc Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1998 [1977]), p. 5.


3 Taruskin, Richard, ‘A Surrealist Composer Comes to the Rescue of Modernism’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009 [1999]), p. 144Google Scholar.

4 Adès, Thomas, ‘“Nothing but Pranks and Puns”: Janáček's Solo Piano Music’, in Janáček Studies, ed. Wingfield, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 18Google Scholar.

5 Edward Venn and Philip Stoecker (eds), Thomas Adès Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

6 See Edward Venn, ‘Adès and Sonata Forms’, this issue.

7 Worth noting is surrealism's complex relationship to modernism. The art critic Hal Foster writes that, in the mediums of visual art, literature, theatre and architecture, ‘much theory and practice of our postmodern present is partly, genealogically, a theory and practice of “Surrealism”’. Hal Foster, ‘L'amour Faux’, Art in America, 74, no. 11 (1986), p. 128.

8 For a representative overview, see Danuta Mirka (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

9 See James Donaldson, ‘Living Toys in Thomas Adès's Living Toys: Transforming the Post-Tonal Topic’, Music Theory Spectrum, forthcoming.

10 Yayoi Uno Everett, ‘Pianto as a Topical Signifier of Grief in Contemporary Operas by John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Kaija Saariaho’, in The Routledge Handbook of Music Signification, ed. Esti Sheinberg and William P. Dougherty (London: Routledge), pp. 333–44; Edward Venn, ‘Thomas Adès and the pianto’, in Proceedings of the International Conference on Music Semiotics: in Memory of Raymond Monelle, ed. Nearchos Panos, Vangelis Lympouridis, George Athanasopoulos and Peter Nelson (Edinburgh: IMPDS), pp. 309–17.

11 An aligned cycle is when two (or more, often three) interval cycles unfold simultaneously in the same direction, a process Philip Stoecker traces to the music of Berg. He notes the prominence of aligned cycles throughout the Quintet, which often map on to what I am labelling the horn-call topic. See Philip Stoecker ‘Aligned Cycles in Thomas Adès's Piano Quintet’, Music Analysis, 33, no. 1 (2014), pp. 32–64.

12 See Raymond Monelle, The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military, and Pastoral (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. 68. Monelle adds to Philip Tagg's discussion of the Kojak television theme that a number of theme tunes similarly use horn-call-type elements. These are similarly initiating. Indeed, the often fanfare-like openings of news reports likewise adopt a form of initiating function.

13 Kofi Agawu, Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 40.

14 Caplin first developed his theory of formal functions in Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). More recently, Caplin has defined formal functions as ‘The specific way a musical passage expresses a more general temporal quality, such as beginning, being-in-the-middle, ending, before-the-beginning, or after-the-end’, primarily informed by harmony but incorporating other parameters. See William Caplin, Analyzing Classical Form: an Approach for the Classroom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 707.

15 Caplin, ‘On the Relation of Musical Topoi to Formal Function’, p. 115.

16 Michael Klein, Intertextuality in Western Art Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 62.

17 For a detailed analysis of the rich semantic layers of Brahms, see Edward Venn, ‘Thomas Adès and the Spectres of Brahms’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 140, no. 1 (2015), pp. 163–212.

18 Caplin, ‘On the Relation of Musical Topoi to Formal Function’, p. 122.

19 The semiotic concept of markedness has been adapted by Robert Hatten to music. A moment is marked if it is syntactically notable, a surprise within generic expectations. More specifically, Hatten describes markedness as: ‘The asymmetrical valuation of an opposition (in musical structure, language, culture)… Marked entities have a greater (relative) specificity of meaning than do unmarked entities. Marked entities also have a narrower distribution, which means that they tend to occur in fewer contexts, and thus (usually) less often than their unmarked opposites’. See Robert Hatten, Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 291–92.

20 Venn, ‘Adès and Sonata Forms’.

21 Tunde Szitha, ‘A Conversation with György Ligeti’, Hungarian Music Quarterly 3, part 1, (1992), pp. 14–15.

22 See Richard Powell, ‘A New Dawn? Thomas Adès and the Case for Musical Simplicity’, this issue.

23 Charles Jencks, ‘Postmodern and Late Modern: The Essential Definitions’, Chicago Review, 35, no. 4 (1987), p. 37. Juan Chattah draws upon the concept of double coding to explore ‘bifurcated narratives’ in Dennis Kam's ‘opera spoofa’ Opera 101 (2009). See Juan Chattah, ‘Postmodern Opera 101: Irony, Nostalgia, and Bifurcated Narratives’, in Singing in Signs: New Semiotic Explorations of Opera, ed. Gregory J. Decker and Matthew R. Shaftel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

24 Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982 [1966]), p. 130.

25 Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, p. 5.

26 See, for example, Esti Sheinberg, Irony, Satire, Parody and the Grotesque in the Music of Shostakovich: A Theory of Musical Incongruities (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), Yayoi Uno Everett, ‘Parody with an Ironic Edge: Dramatic Works by Kurt Weill, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Louis Andriessen’, Music Theory Online, 10 (2004); Michael L Klein, ‘Ironic Narrative, Ironic Reading’, Journal of Music Theory, 53, no. 1 (2009), pp. 95–136; Julian Johnson, Mahler's Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Johanna Frymoyer, ‘The Musical Topic in the Twentieth Century: A Case Study of Schoenberg's Ironic Waltzes’, Music Theory Spectrum, 39, no. 1 (2017), pp. 83–108; and Michael Cherlin, Varieties of Musical Irony: From Mozart to Mahler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

27 Linda Hutcheon, ‘Introduction’, in Double Talking: Essays on Verbal and Visual Ironies in Canadian Contemporary Art and Literature, ed. Linda Hutcheon (Toronto: ECW Press, 1992), p. 15.

28 Ibid., p.16.

29 Ibid.

30 Adès, Thomas and Service, Tom, Thomas Adès: Full of Noises (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), p. 141Google Scholar; Wörner, Felix, ‘Tonality as “Irrationality Functional Harmony”: Thomas Adès's Piano Quintet’, in Tonality since 1950, eds Wörner, Felix, Scheideler, Ullrich and Rupprecht, Philip (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017), pp. 295311Google Scholar.

31 Eco, Umberto, Reflections on The Name of the Rose (London: Secker and Warburg, 1985), p. 67Google Scholar.

32 Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 23Google Scholar.

33 Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 93Google Scholar.

34 Ibid., p.119, my emphasis.

35 Jencks, ‘Postmodern and Late Modern’, p. 37.

36 Taruskin, ‘A Surrealist Composer’, p. 149.

37 Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, p. 6.

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