Bruckner’s Symphonies and Sonata Deformation Theory


  • Julian Horton



sonata form, Bruckner, symphony, deformation theory,


Sonata deformation theory constitutes possibly the most substantial recent contribution to the analytical literature dealing with the sonata-type repertoire of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This notion, developed by James Hepokoski in relation to the music of Sibelius and Strauss and subsequently elaborated both collaboratively and separately by Warren Darcy and Hepokoski, posits nineteenth-century practice as a critical response to a theorized, normative model of sonata form. The widespread formal experimentation evident in the instrumental and symphonic repertoire from Chopin to Schoenberg arises, by these terms, from a more-or-less conscious distortion of the normative pattern proposed seminally by Anton Reicha, and consolidated in the Formenlehre abstractions of A. B. Marx and Carl Czerny, which in turn evolved as part of the pedagogical reception of Beethoven.

This essay offers a critical appraisal of the extent to which deformation theory affords a satisfactory basis for understanding novel sonata procedures in Bruckner’s symphonies. The formal strategies of these works have proved habitually resistant to unproblematic sonata readings. Persistent accusations of formlessness have often been challenged by the detection of forming processes that cut across the perceived requirements of classical formal archetypes. Yet, pace Darcy’s study of deformational procedures in Bruckner (1997), I contend that this concept gives an inadequate rendition of the symphonies’ sonata forms, misrepresenting the nature of the composer’s didactic experience, the relationship of norm and deviation in the music, and the place the symphonies occupy in the general development of the genre after Beethoven.

Author Biography

Julian Horton

Julian Horton is a Lecturer in Music at University College Dublin. He completed his doctoral research at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also held a Research Fellowship in Musicology from 1996 to 2000, and has taught both at the University of Cambridge and at King’s College, London. His research focuses primarily on the analysis and reception of nineteenth-century music, with special interests in the music of Anton Bruckner, issues of tonal theory and the analysis of sonata forms. Recent publications include Bruckner’s Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); ‘Bruckner and the Symphony Orchestra’ in John Williamson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); ‘Recent Developments in Bruckner Scholarship’ in Music and Letters, 85/1 (2004); ‘Schumann’s Requiem für Mignon and the Concept of Music as Literature’ in Lorraine Byrne (ed.), Goethe: Musical Poet, Musical Catalyst (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2005); and ‘Postmodernism and the Critique of Musical Analysis’ in The Musical Quarterly, 85/2 (2001). [August 2005]




How to Cite

Horton, J. (2005). Bruckner’s Symphonies and Sonata Deformation Theory. Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland, 1, 5–17.