McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium


Ternary Form in Theory and Practice

William Renwick


The eight pieces which are the subject of articles in Volume I of McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium have in common readily-perceived ternary forms. We hope that the exploration of a variety of approaches to this music will enhance the reader's understanding of the compositional and aesthetic issues involved in ternary form.

As the Appendix describes, our working model of ternary form postulates that ternary form arises through a contrast of material which forms a central section.  Of course, in setting up such a definition, we are left with the problem of determining how it is that the central section, despite its contrasting nature, nevertheless truly belongs together with the opening and closing sections to form a whole. The other crucial compositional problem in ternary form is the relationship that exists between the opening and closing A sections: identical, or merely similar, and if similar, then why not identical?

In the case of the da capo arias by J.S. Bach, the ternary characteristic is determined by a pre-existing rubric which demands an identity between the initial and concluding A sections, thus setting up the B section as in some sense an "other". In other cases, such as the Chopin pieces, the concluding A section represents in some sense an abbreviation of the opening A section. The question becomes how is the closing section abbreviated, and why is it abbreviated, in relation to the opening section. In other cases, such as the Brahms Intermezzi, the concluding section uses music that was not found in the opening section, prompting equally interesting questions such as "what is the function of the added music?" and "how do these alterations enhance the whole?"

In the texted pieces, by Palestrina and Schubert, the text itself obviously plays a crucial role in the formal considerations of the music. The Kyrie text is in itself a ternary form, whereas the strophic Schubert song is not. Indeed, one would ask both why and how Schubert has transformed the strophic structure of the text into a ternary movement, and what effect this has on the dramatic reading of the text.

Through the process of analyzing this collection of eight ternary-form pieces, we hope to be able to respond to the definitions of ternary as presented by Douglass Green and others, and to shed light on how ternary form makes musical and artistic sense.



Copyright 1999 by William Renwick.