Tonal Ambiguity in Bohuslav Martinů’s Variations on a Theme of Rossini and Variations on a Slovak Theme for Cello and Piano



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More than sixty years after Bohuslav Martinů’s death, a well-defined stylistic portrait of this important twentieth-century composer remains elusive, representing a significant barrier to informed interpretation and performance. This thesis aims to provide a novel perspective on the nature and significance of tonal ambiguity in Martinů’s harmonic language. It focuses predominantly on three core areas: first, historical and biographical context serves to illustrate the provenance and development of Martinů’s sophisticated approach to tonality, which, at its expressive height, may even be understood as a creative extension of the composer’s philosophical and aesthetic beliefs; second, further evidence of the complexities of Martinů’s harmonic idioms is offered through detailed analysis of the composer’s various methods and techniques of establishing tonal ambiguity in two variation sets for cello and piano (Variations on a theme of Rossini, H.290, and Variations on a Slovak Theme, H.378); finally, Martinů’s philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations are synthesized with a consideration of tonal ambiguity and tonal clarity as binarily oppositional expressive states, by way of two narrative readings of specific segments of the composer’s work. The conclusion—it is hoped—may hold broader significance for the study of harmony in the work of other post-tonal composers whose tonal languages may also be located somewhere along the amorphous continuum between tonality and atonality.



Bohuslav Martinů, Tonal Ambiguity, Cello, Performance, Variations on a Slovak Theme, Variations on a Theme of Rossini, Diatonic Paradox, Multistable perception, Moravian cadence, Musical narrative