Towards an interpretive model of text-music relations: An analysis of selected scenes from Verdi's ``Otello''

Date of Completion

January 1997


Music|Language, Rhetoric and Composition




Defining the relationship between words and music in texted music is and has been a difficult task for musicologists and music theorists. Each element can be examined separately or considered interdependently within the larger complex. Understanding the interplay between words and music is especially important when questions concerning the issue of meaning are raised. The formal and expressive qualities of music are frequently contrasted with the connotative capabilities associated with language. Nonetheless, each domain can partake of various functions some that may be precisely defined, and others that may be indeterminate, rhetorical or metaphorical. I contend that it is the ability of both language and music to function and, most importantly, to interact at these multiple levels that is largely responsible for the dramatic qualities of song and opera.^ This study investigates the relationship between words and music in texted music. In Chapter One, four analytical models are examined that have been used by scholars to explain the interaction between text and music in German art song. These models are then extended to provide a conceptual framework for evaluating studies of text-music interaction in opera as a genre and, more specifically in Chapter Two, to scholarly investigations of Boito and Verdi's Otello.^ A model of text-music interaction is developed in Chapter Three that focuses on the structural similarities between written narratives and music. Formal parallels are identified based on the translation of concepts derived from narrative theory to current musical-analytical practices. Analyses of the trio, "Cosa sento! Tosto andate!" from da Ponte and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and of selected scenes from Boito and Verdi's Otello in Chapter Four illustrate a range of interactive possibilities between language and music in opera and demonstrate some of the ways this interaction effects character development, narrative authority and the transmission of meaning. ^