Featured WIMT: Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska

I yet have to meet a colleague who dreamt of being a music theorist as a child. I am no exception: as a young musician, I aspired to win a job playing clarinet in a symphonic orchestra. Analyzing music gave me great satisfaction and I had always been inclined towards the intellectual side of things, but the possibility of pursuing a career in music theory was not even in my radar—largely because in Spain, as in other parts of Europe, it does not have that status of an academic discipline. Just as for other fellow women in music theory featured here, my inner theorist revealed itself during a transformative moment. For me, this happened in Alcalá de Henares, a small historic city close to Madrid and birthplace to Miguel de Cervantes. Although the University of Alcalá did not offer degrees in music, a woman called Avelina López-Chicheri had the vision to fill a gap and satisfy an existing demand by creating a series of workshops in music theory led by prominent scholars. At two of those workshops, “Musical Meaning” by Michael Spitzer and “Interpretation and Analysis” by Robert Hatten, I experienced for the first time the meaning and possibilities of music theory and analysis. From Spitzer, I heard about musical topics and metaphors; from Hatten, I learned how Beethoven could convey with his music concepts such as abnegation or transcendence without using a single word. This all resonated so strongly with my experiences as musician and listener that it triggered a change in my career path, which would eventually lead me to study music theory at the other side of the Atlantic.

The empirical bent of the Music Theory and Cognition program at Northwestern University put an unexpected twist on my interest in musical meaning and expression. Vasili Byros and Robert Gjerdingen introduced me to the study of historical modes of listening and the importance of statistical learning, which I appropriated—perhaps sometimes too liberally—into my “corpus-inspired hermeneutics.” For example, I studied phrase structure and hypermeter in symphonic minuets by Haydn and Mozart, and realized that certain traits appear much more frequently in the symphonies than in minuets written for the ballroom, and that these strategies produce musical imitations of specific elements from the minuet’s choreography. Danceable minuets did not require this type of exact correspondence between music and movement, but I believe that in some symphonies composers aimed to create a sonic representation of the minuet dance—a dance-painting of sorts. In another corpus study (conducted by hand an eye), I examined the use of the I–V-vi chord progression in the late eighteenth century and realized that it appears more frequently in sacred music than in instrumental music, more frequently in opera seria than in opera buffa, and that it commonly accompanies moments depicting priests, gods, heavens, or prayers. Drawing on these correlations, I have offered spiritual interpretations of this harmonic pattern in pieces of music without explicit religious references.

My inclination towards such lofty issues has led me to write my dissertation on the hymn as a musical topic in the age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. As a musical genre, the hymn is a fuzzy category that includes—but is not restricted to—congregational songs, homophonic passages from Catholic polyphony, operatic prayers, revolutionary hymns, and national anthems. Although these repertoires differ in their musical characteristics, they share a common affective core, something of a heart-felt solemnity. Towards the end of the eighteenth-century, composers increasingly incorporated the style of hymns into other musical genres (using them as “topics”), arguably to infuse their music with spiritual resonances by evoking the sounds of ritual and devotion. As a topic, the hymn style tends to coalesce around distinct sub-categories. Homophonic passages reminiscent of the sober isochrony of the Lutheran chorale provide one well-known example, but others exhibit more rhythmic variety. The hymn-like themes that Beethoven wrote for his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 incorporate abundant dotted rhythms, resembling French revolutionary hymns as well as the recently established repertoire of Catholic congregational songs in German. Dussek was also fond of this spirited variant of the hymn topic. Haydn turned towards triple meter for his instrumental hymns (as in the slow movements of his Symphonies Nos. 75 and 87), writing a graceful type of hymn topic rooted in the style of operatic scenes featuring cohorts of priestesses and other female, supernatural characters. Hymn topics interact with other musical styles and participate in larger expressive trajectories, often governed by convention, to create musical signification. Some give way to a more operatic singing style, following a solemn-to-lyrical paradigm; others arrive after stormy passages, suggesting a laboriously achieved serenity. Although dances and hymns seem hardly compatible in their expressive content, composers such as Gluck, Beethoven, or Gyrowetz found in the pavane a fair companion for the hymn topic.

The study of musical topics provides great opportunities to explore intersections between music theory, music history, and other domains of culture—a perspective that I value as both a researcher and a teacher. By inviting my students to consider the historic, aesthetic, and expressive dimensions of musical structures, I hope to recreate for them some of the excitement that I experienced in those memorable music theory workshops. Many years after my first encounter with Robert Hatten, we reconnected thanks to the Mentorship Program of the Committee of the Status of Women and I eventually asked him to join my dissertation committee. I could not think of a better way of closing one circle and beginning a new one.


headshot WiMTAs of fall of 2017, Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska is a lecturer at the University of Chicago and PhD candidate at Northwestern University. She holds bachelor’s degrees in Economics (Universidad Complutense) and clarinet performance (Real Conservatorio de Madrid), and Master’s degrees in Music History (Universidad de La Rioja) and Music Theory (Northwestern University). Before moving to the Unites States and embarking on her academic career, Olga was an active performer and music educator in Madrid. Her research gravitates around musical meaning, broadly understood, with a focus on the classical style. She has received awards from the Center for Iberian and Latin Music, the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic, the Music Theory Society of New York State, and the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music.



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