For centuries, metaphors of agency have pervaded music-analytical writing. Today, as in generations past, critics routinely vivify their analytical narrations by ascribing sentience, emotion, and volition to musical works, their internal elements (pitch classes, contrapuntal voices, etc.), and fictionalized versions of their composers. This study investigates the use of such agential conceits and the conventions that seem to govern them, using the opening of Beethoven’s A-minor Quartet, op. 132, as a central test case. The descriptive model it constructs borrows key concepts from the seemingly incompatible agential theories of Edward T. Cone, who heard music’s agencies as obligatory and hierarchically nested, and Fred E. Maus, who clarified the poietic function of such agential ascriptions while stressing their provisional, ad hoc, and often ephemeral nature. After arriving at a fourfold hierarchy of fictional agent types—the individuated element, the work-persona, the fictional composer, and the analyst—the study then examines their relational logic, with special interest in (1) the ways that explicit agency claims at one level can spin off implicit claims at another and (2) the deeper consistencies that underlie seemingly contradictory accounts in which agency shifts from one locus to another. It also considers the various alternative guises (or avatars) that these agent classes take and the kinds of semantic ambiguities that often arise from their use.
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Seth Monahan; Action and Agency Revisited. Journal of Music Theory 1 October 2013; 57 (2): 321–371. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00222909-2323497
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