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Stumbling to Syntax: narrative, structure, and syntax in Steven Mackey’s Stumble to Grace


The primary focus of this dissertation is a theoretical analysis of Steven Mackey’s piano concerto, Stumble to Grace, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and St. Louis Symphony, and premiered in 2011. Inspired by his son “learning to become human,” the concerto moves through 5 stages (movements) that progress from awkward all-thumbs playing in the first stage—which represents an immature, childlike way of playing—to complex, mature counterpoint in the fifth stage, which represents the arrival as a fully mature, sophisticated human being. The motivation for this study comes out of the dearth of analytical study of Mackey’s music, despite its originality and growing reputation. Two questions are central to this study: 1) how does Stumble to Grace interact with and comment on the history of the concerto genre? and 2) how does Mackey create a musical syntax with his personal harmonic language? The primary method for the analysis of harmonic syntax is set-theory using Pitch-Class set notation. Edward Pearsall’s method of analyzing consonance and dissonance in atonal music is used, as well as Santa’s Modulo-7 approach to post-tonal diatonic music. The study will show that Stumble to Grace, like many concertos before it, invites the listener to consider the role of virtuosity in concert music, but in a new way: the concept of virtuosity is center-stage in the narrative of the piece. The narrative generates a progressive form, in which individual stages have returns to their opening material while the piece as a whole does not have returns or recapitulations (beyond structural pitch-class sets). The results of the analysis reveal (1) a motivic, thematic, and harmonic design interconnected by important pitch-class sets, (2) phrase-level harmonic syntax that is partially controlled by those sets, and (3) a theory of the logic of consonant and dissonant sonorities within the piece. It is my hope that this study not only furthers the understanding of Mackey’s music among theorists and composers, but also that conductors and concert programmers looking for connections to programmatic works about a life’s journey discover Stumble to Grace.

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