Double Syntax in Britten

David Forrest, Texas Tech University

While many authors have been able to convincingly describe certain elements of Britten's technique, the leading strategies seem largely incompatible with each other. The composite narrative of these disparate analyses is that Britten is somehow forcing incompatible schemata on top of each other. This narrative fails to capture the consistency of Britten's compositional signature. However, Richard Cohn's double syntax model provides a framework for unifying the above techniques by describing Britten's triadic progressions as exploring different, naturally occurring facets of the triad's internal design. This paper will demonstrate how Cohn's double syntax model applies to Britten's triadic progression and how such application can reveal similarities in seemingly incongruous analysis strategies. First, the presentation will review leading analyses of Britten's music, showing how each contributes to the double syntax model, then it will present new analyses featuring a variety of approaches, unified under the double syntax heading.

Cohn's concept of double syntax posits that, in addition to the syntax of functional root progression, the consonant triad is equally well suited to participate in a syntax of parsimonious voice-leading. While these two syntaxes are ontologically and cognitively distinct, Cohn makes compelling analogies with bilingualism, cognitive opacity, and biological evolution to explain how compositions that feature both types of progression can yield a unified sound. While Cohn's model was developed to help explain passages of 19th-century music that defy root movement norms, the concept is also useful for describing 20th-century triadic progression.