Associative harmony functions as a powerful resource through which Schubert and Brahms fashion continuities within the dialectic of articulation and continuity that stands at the heart of the Viennese sonata style. More specifically, the technique of harmonic cross-reference provides these composers with one among a number of integrative strategies to counterbalance the threat of self-contained lyricism in the middle sections of their tripartite expositions. In one type of expositional context, this integration involves harmonic linkage designed specifically to efface a formal boundary. In a second type, it involves a more general sense of continuity between formal sections.

The study of harmonic cross-reference in the three-key expositions of Schubert's Quartettsatz and String Quintet and Brahms's Second Symphony and Clarinet Trio reveals a tension between functional distinctions for the sonorities involved (as defined by Schenkerian analysis), and the interconnection of these sonorities in processes of motivic development. Through this motivic interconnection, the sonorities achieve an ontological status partially independent of their individual linear-contrapuntal environments. Each motivic harmony gains meaning through its particular tonal function, but each also exists within a network of associative connection based more generally on chord identity.

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