In his book Style and Music, Leonard Meyer distinguishes between syntactic and statistical form. The former is hierarchical, schematic, and the product of harmony; the latter corresponds to the dynamic shape of a given section, beginning generally with a period of intensification, leading to a climax, and ending with a short phase of decay. Meyer notes that the two are often coordinated but admits to the need of further studying their interaction. This paper begins to bridge this gap by examining three different ways in which syntactic and statistical form interact in Brahms’s works, focusing especially on the role of decay.
The first category corresponds to cases where syntactic and statistical forms coordinate: intensification characterizes the motion towards structural goals, and a short period of decay unfolds only after securing one of these goals.
A frequent deviation from this model occurs when the period of decay begins long before the point of structural arrival and continues to the end of the section. This category includes but is not limited to what Hepokoski and Darcy refer to as “de-energizing transitions.” Common too are de-energizing second themes and closing sections, as this paper demonstrates.
The most striking deviation arises when the process of decay culminates in mid-section without a cadence, creating a disjunction within the given syntactic unit. Since the process of decay generally unfolds towards the end of a section, its appearance towards the beginning obfuscates formal boundaries. Examples illustrate that this deviation is most common among second themes and recapitulations.
The paper concludes by offering a hermeneutic interpretation of these categories. I argue that while the first may be heard as modeling the Enlightenment values of striving and progress, the two deviations enact the Romantic ideals of resignation and decay, producing that autumnal quality long associated with Brahms’s works.