Performative Analysis: Reimagining Music Theory for Performance (summary)

By Jeffrey Swinkin (University of Oklahoma)


At the gracious behest of the PAIG blog, I write to share with you some ideas as expressed in my recently published book, Performative Analysis: Reimagining Music Theory for Performance (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2016).  This work is based on my doctoral dissertation (University of Michigan, 2013), which was advised by Kevin Korsyn.  The book essentially argues that music theory, Schenkerian theory in particular, is grounded in the same sorts of physical and emotional experiences that performers are necessarily concerned to project, and thus that music theory/analysis and performance are (or can be) deeply compatible.  I apply this stance primarily to three pieces:

Chopin, Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, no. 1 (Chapter 3).  I subject Chopin’s piece to a Schenkerian and semiotic reading, producing a veritable character study.  In this reading, the piece portrays a persona who in essence is feeble and uncertain and who, more locally, experiences a range of feelings and corresponding physical stances.  The pianist following this reading would, like an actor, simultaneously embody and convey the most deep-seated as well as the more transient emotive states.  Importantly, the narrative premise of weakness and striving for stability, perhaps no more than a potentiality within the piece—strong at times, faint at others—is consolidated by the application of Urlinie, Zug, and other Schenkerian constructs.  Without a Schenkerian reading, such a potentiality might easily go unnoticed—it might remain latent.  Indeed, I believe a Schenkerian reading of any piece is at root a mandate to imagine precisely such a search for closure and the many obstacles and digressions encountered along the way.

Beethoven, String Quartet in C minor, op. 18, no. 4, mvt. 1 (Chapter 4).  I work on the movement using Schenkerian, motivic, rhythmic, and formal tools.  It is written as a Socratic dialogue among a teacher/coach and four string quartet members within the fictional setting of a performance/analysis practicum.

Schumann, Frauenliebe und –leben, op. 42—“Du Ring an meinem Finger” in particular (Chapter 5)Here I offer a different slant on the performativity of music analysis.  Whereas in the previous chapters, analysis beckoned the performer to concretize the physical, emotive, and narrative potential of particular pieces, this final chapter beckons a different, more critical sort of involvement.  Many have suspected Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben as harboring misogynist sentiments.  This is a point of contention; Ruth Solie and Suzanne Cusick have argued for it, Elissa Guralnick and Kristina Muxfeldt against it.  Without purporting to settle this musicological dispute, I treat the piece as a hypothetical case study: supposing the singer and pianist deemed the cycle ideological dubious, how might they telegraph resistance toward that ideology in performance?  And how might they harness analysis in the service of such a resisting reading?  My process is to read the musical structure as consisting of parametric crosscurrents—as counterpoising, in particular, hierarchical (Schenkerian) and horizontal domains that cannot be fully reconciled; in this, I educe a potential source of unease and resistance.  In other words, I harness these parametric tensions to generate tension between the performer and the piece.

Jennifer Goltz and myself offer one such resisting performance of “Du Ring an meinem Finger” in this video.  (Click here to find an annotated score of the full song).  Here our basic emotion or mental state is ambivalence, stemming from moments of tension that belie, however subtly, the docility of the surface.  The first such moment is perhaps the pickup to measure 3, where soprano and bass, voice and piano, pull apart in contrary motion, a conventional musical signifier of tension.  Moreover, the E♭–D–C in the bass inverts, metaphorically “corrects,” the soprano’s C–D–E♭ of the previous bar.


We concretize this textural and motivic tension with a scenario in which the man had earlier antagonized the woman by correcting her publicly, thus degrading her.  Notice how Jennifer manifests this subtext both visually and aurally, in her facial expression and vocal timbre.

In the b section, the gaps of descending and ascending sixths are subsequently filled in and thus we read them as affirmative.


Consequently, Jennifer reads “allein” against the textual grain: though she pays lip service to the idea that she was lost and alone and thus needed the man to guide her, subtextually she conveys the sense that being alone was for her really an opportunity for self-realization, for paving her own way—an idea reinforced by the decisive gap-fill that follows.

Finally, the striking reharmonization of the opening tune (mm. 37 ff.) is emotionally ambiguous: it is warm but also verges on overbearing; it potentially overwhelms the voice with its deep, octave-doubled bass.


In our performance, Jennifer’s protagonist loses her verve gradually.