The Twentieth-Century Origins of the Feature Motive

Brent Auerbach, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

This paper investigates the recent evolution of motive, a concept that entered the twentieth century as a humanistic, phenomenal entity and exited it an abstract one. One of the clearest indicators of this transformation occurred in the very nature of motive. Traditionally required to exhibit characteristic rhythm or syntactic function, motives increasingly appeared as entities defined purely in terms of intervallic content. The new form was, in truth, more akin to what Schoenberg would have called "feature", a sub-attribute of motive.

The prevailing historical view attributes this paradigm shift to misreadings of Arnold Schoenberg's published analyses. This paper advances an alternative explanation interpreted in light of a single watershed event, the publication of Forte (1983). Forte's article is remarkable in several respects, but mostly for its bold presentation of four "guidelines" that essentially accord motive the properties of a pitch or pitch-class set. Broad consideration of the forces leading to this surprising circumstance will be given, among them mid)century developments in set theory as well as Schenkerian analytic practices. In addition to these, the talk will offer evidence of a third influence, hitherto unrecognized: a nascent interest in development of new highly flexible, associational techniques that would eventually culminate in Lewin's transformational networks.