The Implied Narrator: Literary Inspiration and Musical Narratives

Bryan Whitelaw

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


In current scholarship, the term narrative usually occurs in the field of literary criticism and its interaction with the story in a novel or similar written text. Narrative can, however, be examined in such a way that it is found in a variety of media. Regardless of its artistic application, narrative is present in almost every form of human discourse.

For musicology, this goes beyond the distinction between absolute and programmatic music, as musical narratives are implicit in a number of different formal schemata and can be supported by a variety of semiotic allusions. As musicology continues to observe a growing openness to interrogating the ideology of absolute music, to developing theoretical and analytical approaches that admit hermeneutics as a valid scholarly approach, and to focusing on performers and performativity as much as on what is performed, scholarship on the narrative capacities of music has required a fresh approach.

The emergence of a pluralistic musicology is well-suited to a composer like Franz Liszt, whose literary allusions and instinctive programmaticism, lend themselves particularly well to an interdisciplinary approach. In this paper, I first survey a preliminary review of literary narrative and its historical relationship with musicology, and then, draw on musical semiotics and hermeneutics to suggest some parameters for the identification of musical narrativity. In a case-study analysis of one of Liszt’s Weimar period works, I show how a new approach to both harmonic and formal analysis might reveal the complex practices of nineteenth-century compositions as narratively charged.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2019
Event2019 SMI/ICTM-IE Postgraduate Conference - Dundalk Institute of Technology, Dundalk, Ireland
Duration: 10 Jan 201911 Jan 2019


Conference2019 SMI/ICTM-IE Postgraduate Conference
Abbreviated titleSMI/ICTM-IE 2019


  • liszt
  • musicology
  • sonata theory
  • narrative
  • analysis
  • hermeneutics


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