McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium



William Renwick

1. The appendix summarizes principles of ternary form.  Many of the ideas stem from the work of Douglass Green, Form in Tonal Music (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979).

2. The basic forms in tonal music are one-part, two-part, and three-part. More complex forms such as rondo and sonata can be understood as outgrowths of these three. In considering three-part, or ternary form, the most important question is what distinguishes three-part from the other types, especially binary.

3. The basic idea of ternary as statement-digression-restatement (A B A) is taken by Green from the earlier works such as MacPherson, and is repeated in many other texts. The statement (A) is distinguished and identified by its difference from the digression (B). Therefore contrast is an essential attribute of ternary form. Restatement is dependent on a preceding digression, as well as on its identity with the initial A section. It may be obvious, but is in any case important to note, that ternary form is not A-B-C, but A-B-A.

4. Green states that the division into three parts that marks ternary form is brought about entirely by design. The first division is normally due to a strong cadence marking the end of part one; the second is due to the contrasting nature of the material. Green's definition can be further reduced: the division into three parts is due to the contrasting material of the middle section.

5. In binary form, on the other hand, the B material of the A B form is similar rather than contrasting. Thus the essential distinction between binary and ternary is reduceable to the question of whether the B material is similar or different. Surprisingly then, it is content that determines form, in this view.

6. On the face of it, it is amazing that there can be any confusion between binary and ternary, yet two major texts of our day highlight this confusion, for what Green refers to as rounded binary, is called incipient ternary by Wallace Berry! This paradox becomes less important when we understand that similar and different mark extremes of a continuum. At what point does a similar passage become different enough to be considered contrasting? In the same way, Levy and Levarie describe how at a certain point in musical evolution binary becomes ternary (Musical Morphology, p. 87).

7. If we accept the above definition of ternary, then the study of ternary forms will focus primarily on the relation between the contrasting sections. It will ask such questions as:

A. Ontic

A-1. What musical elements provide contrast between A and B?

  1. key: related in baroque, more distant in romantic
  2. texture and motive, register
  3. metre; rhythm, phrasing (hypermeter)
  4. tempo same-similar-different
  5. character
  6. [proportion]

A-2 [corollary]. What elements provide the continuity or association between A and B that is required in order to establish a basic compositional unity?

  1. key: related in baroque, more distant in romantic
  2. texture and motive, register
  3. metre; rhythm, phrasing (hypermeter)
  4. tempo same-similar-different
  5. character

A-3. What is the relationship between A and A' (how similar are they and why).

  1. identical or similar
  2. length
  3. does A' include reference to B?

B. Gignetic

B-1. What means if any does the composer use, link or separate A from B and B from A'?: [applicable to any form with contrasting sections]

  1. link: a brief connector, melodically, tonally, harmonically; V7 of new key for example.
  2. elision: end of one is beginning of other: works for mixture, or deceptive cadence, but not for other keys.
  3. broken cadence
  4. transition or bridge: a developed connection between
  5. dovetailing (usually between B and A') more complex, leads to the idea of smearing the boundaries of A and B
  6. [intro and coda materials can be reused as well to make links]

B-2. Are there hidden devices, tonal or motivic, that provide an increased sense of unity to the composition?

B-3. Finally, how, if at all, does the composer reconcile the contrast established by the second section?

  1. uniting themes
  2. coda!
  3. other


8. The ternary form in its 'classic" guise developed in the baroque, especially in the da capo aria. Charles Rosen goes so far as to suggest the da capo aria as the most important precursor of sonata and concerto forms (Sonata Forms). These new forms eclipsed the ternary forms in the classical era, with the exception of the minuet-and-trio and scherzo-and-trio forms that were retained from the baroque suite.

9. After Beethoven, ternary form again found favour among the romantics, especially Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Brahms, as an effective and plastic means for integrating a great diversity of musical ideas.

10. With the rise of a greater diversity of tonal and non-tonal systems in the twentieth century, ternary has maintained its importance because it has the capability of providing an underlying formal framework to virtually any type of musical texture. Bartok in particular made extensive use of the ternary form and its extension the arch form, particularly in his more unusual slow movements.

11. The following discussion summarizes the main subdivisions within the category of ternary forms.

12. Full sectional ternary A-B-A(') ("-" = formal division through PAC in key of section.): A complete piece followed by a contrasting complete piece, followed by a restatement of the first piece. The aesthetic problem is establishing sufficient unity because the divisions are so strong. Solutions are commonly found in maintaining similar metre, tempo, phrase lengths, and general character, in a different but related key. Minuet and trio is the most familiar example.

13. Sectional ternary A-BA('): The B section is not closed, but leads back directly to A', therefore sounding like a recapitulation. Note that this is a close relation of rounded binary. The only difference--as noted already--is that B is contrasting, not similar. The fact that a binary and ternary form can be confused at this level highlights that ternary and binary forms are not exclusives, but basic form-creating concepts. Sectional ternary is also the basis of the full da capo aria form. But while B is open, it usually does not lead directly back to A.  Rather it ends in a distant key area, usually a half-cadence in the relative minor. The abbreviated da capo aria, whether with a written out A' or a dal segno are both ternary forms as well.

14. Sonata forms can often be seen as having important binary and ternary aspects. This is dealt with in great detail by Rosen in Sonata Forms.

15. Continuous ternary AB//A': A is open harmonically; B is open harmonically; A' must therefore be an altered repetition to effect a PAC at the end  of the piece. More common in the shorter romantic genres, salon pieces, and the like, such as Brahms Intermezzi Op. 118-4, 6; Op 119, 1; Mendelssohn SWW Op 19-2; Op 85-1, and Schubert Moment Musical Op 94-2.

16. Composite ternary: Each section has its own internal form, usually a binary form (so as to save the contrast for the B section). The minuet (scherzo) and trio is common.

17. Ternary as Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis: I will mention here a further and very interesting ternary form, developed extensively in the romantic era, the A-B-(A+B) form. This is found with some frequency in the works of Mendelssohn and Franck to mention two. (Allegretto of Mendelssohn's Fourth Organ Sonata; Franck Chorale in A Minor.) The genius of this form is the reconciliation of the contrast through union in the final section. Usually the two ideas of A and B are combined in counterpoint with one another, in the home key. This formulation had particular aesthetic significance for composers because of its philosophical basis in the Hegelian concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

18. Add-ons: prelude and postlude, introduction and coda: Such things are not integral to the form, but are frequently found. Above all, they give opportunities to suggest points of linkage between A and B. We must understand that the prelude and postlude, the introduction and coda, like the ritornello, play no part in the form itself; that is the form could stand without them. However, the use of an introduction can provide the basis of linking or transitional materials.

19. Postscript: Schenker and Forte on ternary form. Both Heinrich Schenker and Allen Forte have referred to the form of Handel's Aria in B-flat major (Trois Lecons) which was used by Brahms as the basis for his Op. 24 piano variations (Schenker, Der Tonwille, Vol. 8-9; Forte and Stephen Gilbert, Introduction to Schenkerain Analysis, New York, Norton, 1982). The discussions of form are instructive for the light that they shed on concepts of ternary form. Ultimately, Schenker conceives of Handel's Aria as ternary in view of the harmonic structure, in which an initial and a closing tonic are separated by an intervening dominant. Thus Schenker's view of form arises from a conception of tonality rather than of similarity and difference. This view becomes especially interesting and useful in large scale forms, especially sonata forms. Forte, however, illustrates how the opening measures convey an initial ascent over a four-measure span, while the following four measures show a descent of a fifth to the tonic. In this way, Forte sees the Aria as essentially 2-part. Forte is here relying on completion of voice-leading units in order to show completion of formal divisions. More precisely he is aligning linear progression with formal divisions.

20. That two such distinguished and sensitive analysts would come up with opposing views of the form of a single eight-measure piece highlights the complexity of the question of musical form. Our class agrees that the piece is binary, but not for the reasons that Forte suggests. The "binary-ness" of the piece arises through the articulation into parts, and the lack of any digression that would mark a contrasting middle section.
 21.  Postscript to the Postscript:  Thanks to Dr. John Rothgeb, Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University, for the following addition to this discussion:

"I think that is not quite right.  Schenker's view of form is hard to ascertain with precision, but I think this very example is illuminating. The tonal structure, as far as the background is concerned, is undivided: 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 (please supply the carats).  The first four bars have, after the initial ascent, a half-cadence with 3 - 2; then after the double bar with repeat sign, bars 5-6 have an *Untergreifzug* (literally, a line that grasps from beneath)  2 - 3 - 4, the last of which is 4 of the fundamental line.  Bars 7 - 8 complete the descent, with 3 - 2 - 1.  Despite the undivided Urlinie, Schenker does read ternary form: a1, b, a2, as I think one must.  I would bet my copy of "Artur Niloffs Instrumentationstabelle" that Schenker would not have changed his mind about this later, in spite of what he wrote about form in *Free Composition.* Why ternary?  For the simple reason that bar 7 is exactly like bar 1, except that the first note is d rather than b-flat.  D was a necessary consequence of the passing seventh, e-flat, of the middle section (the goal of the *Untergreifzug*). The sense of reprise is palpable (the return of
the tonic is, of course a major factor, but not of itself criterial), and Schenker didn't miss such things.  His reading of a b a flies in the face of many of his "precepts" articulated, in the abstract, in *Free
Composition.*  One must understand those precepts in a certain way: Schenker was at pains to set right decades of misunderstanding of musical form; add to that his penchant for hyperbole, and you may begin to understand some apparent contradictions.  I think it may be just that simple.

"In any case, his reading of the form here was guided by similarity and difference at least as much as by tonal organization."

"You may also add the following if you wish, which I forgot to mention earlier: among the aspects of the a1 that return at bar 6 -- and this would be important for Schenker's reading of the form -- is the
octave coupling bb - Bb in the bass.  The specific register of each of the bass B-flats is significant.  I don't have access to the article at the moment, but I'm sure Schenker expressly marks that."

John Rothgeb
Binghamton University