Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



This dissertation identifies a technique used by Brahms to organize the compositional designs of his piano cycles. The technique is motivic voice-leading. By that I mean that certain patterns of triadic voice-leading gain significance through their unconventional use or varied repetition that have implications throughout the cycle. And, in the same way that traditional melodic or rhythmic motives can be developed and reworked, the composer may break these voice-leading patterns into their component stepwise connections. These stepwise dyads may be developed independently of their original triadic context, in the manner of a pitch-class motive.[1] We can understand many of the most rhetorically disruptive chromatic moments in the cycles as the consequences of pitch-class motives that derive from the cycle’s motivic voice-leading.

Within Brahms’s piano cycles, we may derive the motivic voice-leading pattern from the tonic triads of adjacent pieces in a cycle. This technique allows Brahms to coordinate the local pitch content of his miniatures with the large-scale form of the cycle in which they are embedded. Local voice-leading events therefore gain significance as replications of (in a Schenkerian sense) and as references to (in an associative sense) the global changes that take place as the cycle progresses. These voice-leading events accrue expressive meaning as they foreshadow, invert, and recollect events from elsewhere in the cycle. Most importantly, this approach provides the framework for a compelling critical analysis of the cycles, in which their most salient chromatic features cohere into an intelligible compositional plan.

This dissertation examines three piano cycles by Johannes Brahms that range from across his compositional career. In Chapter 2, “Beethoven, Brahms, and Universal History,” I argue that the voice-leading pattern in Brahms’s op. 10 ballades (1854) is modeled on patterns of chromatic key areas from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and that other aspects of the ballades are likewise modeled on the Ninth. Chapter 3, “Voice-Leading Compatibility in the op. 117 Intermezzos,” explores a more complicated case than the one encountered with the op. 10 cycle. Here, Brahms coordinates key areas that would otherwise have no obvious tonal connection through the use of a descending 5-6 motivic voice-leading pattern. In the final analytical chapter, “Motivic Voice-Leading in the op. 119 Klavierstücke,” we examine a case in which Brahms’s motivic voice-leading is accomplished using explicit melodic motives (rather than pitch-class motives), which had not been the case in the earlier cycles. These analytical chapters provide a window onto Brahms’s changing use of motivic voice-leading as a compositional technique as well as its limitations and advantages as an analytical tool.

[1] Steven Laitz, “Pitch-Class Motive in the Songs of Franz Schubert: The Submediant Complex,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music (1992); and “The Submediant Complex: Its Musical and Poetic Roles in Schubert’s Songs,” Theory and Practice 21 (1996): 123-166.



Committee Chair

Perry, Jeffrey



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Music Theory Commons