Anticipating the Unknown: Applications of Expectation Theory to Rhythm in Barber's Sonata for Piano

by Jennifer Eileen Oliver

Institution: Rice University
Year: 2014
Keywords: Samuel Barber; Piano Performance
Record ID: 2029737
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1911/77380


The music of American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) emerged from a transformative era in which the rise of modernism systematically dismantled the musical traditions of previous centuries and revolutionized the musical experience of its audience by challenging their established expectations – the collective experiences and cognitive associations that predispose individuals to anticipate certain musical events over others. While the thorough application of modernism overturned the familiar expectations used by listeners to process their musical experiences, Barber’s music moderates the perceptual challenges of more rigorous modernism by embracing various aspects of modernism but doing so in a manner that consciously incorporates rather than subverts the core elements of traditional composition, thereby gradually transitioning the listeners’ expectations from the familiarity of the traditional vernacular to a more modern rhetoric. Drawing on an understanding of the cognitive process behind creating and applying musical expectations, this study demonstrates how Barber's Sonata for Piano, Op. 26 supports, departs from, or disguises the basic principles of expectation in the area of rhythm, a compelling topic since rhythm is one of the most readily accessible fundamentals of music and one that generates equally powerful expectations. The cumulative result of this study illustrates how Barber merges the contrasting norms of classicism and modernism, skillfully interweaving these two dialects while alternately supporting or challenging traditional rhythmic expectations.