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The Musical Topic

Thanks to the musical semiotician Raymond Monelle and his wonderful book The Sense of Music, I am happily aware that there is a concept in music of a horse which is unique to music – it’s not a representation of a horse, but a musical idea, a musical topic. Hear a certain kind of 6/8, and you think ‘horse’. It’s not really horsey, of course. There is an important distinction between the sound of real horses in music (like in The Surrey with the Fringe on Top or Horsey Horsey Don’t You Stop) and the cheval écrit or literary horse, noble horse, horse as musical text.

The musical horse is usually noble and male (though dysphoric women on horses like the Valkyries are another topic), and gallops along in a certain kind of 6/8 which then becomes, of itself, a musical topic which you find littering the musical field of the 19th century. And it is quite definitely a 19th century topic, part of the Romantic landscape, so to speak. Anyway, Monelle devotes 22 pages of the book to the subject (pp. 45-67), and I can’t do justice to the extraordinary depth and detail of his work, so if you’re interested, get the book or read a section of it on Google books.

I was lucky enough to discover The Sense of Music just when I was desperately struggling to find horsey music (in the musical sense) for picked-up gallops in a dance syllabus I was working on.  (Interestingly, the fact that the noble horse is a 19th century topic might explain why picked-up gallops are still de rigeur in children’s ballet – it’s a throwback to the topic of the literary horse in the Romantic era. Who knows.)

Here was a person who had wrestled with precisely the same questions as I had, albeit for different reasons, and here, oddly enough, was more useful information about selecting music for dance classes than I have ever read anywhere else.  I rushed to buy a related book by Monelle called The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military & Pastoral which goes into extraordinary detail about the those topics in music, and the social, cultural and historical context that gave rise to them.

And to celebrate this bizarre connection between semiotics and picked-up gallops, if you look really closely in the DVD extras of the RAD Pre-Primary in Dance & Primary in Dance where musical co-producer Andrew Holdsworth & I are talking about the process of creating the music for that syllabus, you’ll see that I had placed a copy of The Musical Topic on the MIDI keyboard in the background.

One thought on “Musical surprises #21: If you want to play for children’s ballet, study semiotics”
  1. Raymond Monelle was my father. He died on the twelfth of March, and his funeral was yesterday, the 19th. I had told the rector of his church, when he was asking for material for his address at the funeral, that you can find all kinds of interesting bits and pieces if you google him. What he found was your blog, and he quoted it in the funeral address.
    My father only had the very vaguest idea of what a blog was, and so he would never have seen what you wrote himself, but he would have been truly delighted to have seen that his work was interesting and helpful to more people than other semioticians. It delighted me, too, and all his family and friends. Thank you for that.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist