Guidelines for Style Analysis by Jan LaRue

Norton (New York, 1970; London, 1980)


Sound, Harmony, Melody and Rhythm (known to their intimates as S, H, M and R) combine to make Growth (G) which consists of movement and shape. Each of those capitalized concepts is invested to yield detailed dividends, chapter by chapter. Thus Sound has timbre, range, texture, dynamics and so on, while timbre in turn can be split into selection, contrasts and so forth. The resulting check-list of separable components is a “flexible mesh through which the music passes leaving a network of tracings from which we perceive the elements of style”. Such candour is as commendable as it is un­common. Not every analyst would thus announce a process of straining designed to facilitate examination of the verbal residues left behind by the passing of music. We are also helpfully warned that such analysis can never replace feeling and that its results should never be treated as dogma. Very well; but then why, if it is always clearly secondary, and never clearly valid, should anyone bother with it at all?

   At this crux, so far as I can see, the analytical method itself breaks down. Selected snippets of music are laboriously translated into words for 240 pages, firstly on the ground that only in words can the relevant skills be recorded and communicated. But the real question is not “how?” but “why?”; and this is nowhere squarely faced. As a result the book is all means and no ends save loose ones. To take a typical sample; under “Growth” we find eight bars of Stamitz, repeated an octave higher, first crescendo then forte. This, Pro­fessor LaRue's system reveals, is an early ex­ample of “unusually skilful control of three-­dimensional strata”. Or, to put it another way, it shows “dimensional stratification”, produced by “potential conflicts with articulations in other dimensions”. Further, “rhythm, melody and sound emphasize compatible modules of different sizes”. Nor is this all. “Here surface rhythm creates a half-plus-quarter bar rhythm; a melodic parabola treated as a tethered sequence yields a two-bar module; and the octave repetition of this sequence establishes a repeating four-bar sentence...” and so on. Thus eight notes have been changed into 200 words. Such commentary may strike some readers as evidence of the new insights and awareness claimed by both book and blurb; to others it may look more like a systematic misuse of language for purposes of academic aggrandisement.

   Personally I find both those assessments rather extreme. But they provide perspectives within which the proposed guidelines may themselves be measured. To analyse some­thing, surely, is to say what it is really like, underneath its surface appearance. Taking pieces to pieces may help to show how a work works, and hence what it is worth. So the “flexible mesh” offered by this book can fairly be judged by its prize catch, proudly displayed in Chapter 9, “Style Analysis in Full Action”. Here, in 17 pages of comment, exam­ple and tabulation, the first movement of Purcell's Golden Sonata is minutely assayed. But when pulverized to musical atoms and their equivalent verbal items, the gold might just as well be dross. What the resulting formulas have to do with either the substance or the value of this or any music remains, to me at least, wholly obscure. Try another typical measurement, this time of Purcell's “Growth” in his “Middle Dimensions”, thus "The in­creasing breadth of phrasing within each half confirms other sources of mounting interest, and the final phrase contains the broadest gestures of all, descending from an upper C to middle F, then rising majestically again to C over two bars and descending with equal breadth to the final F." Most of such commentary seems to me not analysis at all but just technical verbal description. But the music still disappears without trace even after flowing through the proffered net, which in my view not only fails to hold water but also looks sadly empty.     


The Musical Times, Apr. 1981 (pp. 243-244) © the estate of eric sams