Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





William Rothstein

Committee Members

Chadwick Jenkins

Poundie Burstein

Kofi Agawu

Subject Categories



opera, climax, highpoint, Wagner, verismo, Romantic music


When people listen to music, they tend to perceive dynamic rise and fall, often without preliminary knowledge of musical structures and mechanism. This perception of musical dynamism has long been assumed too intuitive and natural to merit serious academic attention. The present dissertation aims to address this neglect by approaching musical dynamism as a logical, systematic process. A formal analytical model, the climax archetype, is proposed for understanding the workings of musical dynamism; to this end, the dissertation focuses on late Romantic operas, especially the works of Wagner and verismo composers, which are characterized by intense musical, dramatic, and emotional dynamism.

The first three chapters in this dissertation serve as a springboard for the presentation of the climax archetype in the following two core chapters. Most chapters are divided into two subchapters. Chapter 1 reviews terms and concepts on climax and highpoint. Subchapter 1.1 introduces Ernst Kurth’s climax theory, presented in Bruckner (1925), as a historical precedent for climax study in the modern era; emphasis is put on his concept of dynamic building, and its parameters and operational principles. Subchapter 1.2 surveys studies (mostly those by post-Kurthian scholars) in analysis related to climax building. Chapter 2 scrutinizes the various parameters used in climax building and integrated in the climax archetype. Subchapter 2.1 investigates solo operations of individual parameters such as harmony, pace acceleration, dynamics, melodic contour and pitch, and instrumentation; subchapter 2.2 addresses parametric interaction. Chapter 3 discusses narrative and dynamic arcs in literary theory and music, which provide prototypes for the climax archetype. Subchapter 3.1 examines bipartite, tripartite, and quintipartite narrative forms in literary theory; subchapter 3.2 moves on to dynamic trajectories in music and investigates dynamism in phrase or formal units, demonstrated primarily through analysis of Romantic opera.

Chapter 4 articulates the climax archetype—comprised of initiation, intensification, optional delay, highpoint, and abatement—as a model to explain dynamic processes in late Romantic opera; normative examples are drawn from music by Beethoven, Bellini, Wagner, and Giordano. Chapter 5 magnifies the applicability of the climax archetype by embracing modification and variants seen in non-normative climax structures. Subchapter 5.1 delves into internal climax deformations, including the fusion or absence of climax stages, high region, and highpoint frustration; subchapter 5.2 proceeds to compound structures such as the climax succession and climax nesting.

The climax archetype and its modifications broaden the analytical scope of musical dynamism in Romantic opera from the well-researched groundswell in the bel canto repertoire to diverse structures beyond the conventional form (la solita forma). Furthermore, the dissertation explains how musical climaxes interact with certain dramatic circumstances or psychological dynamics, emphasizing the prevailing aesthetic of unified musical-dramatic development. Finally, this study suggests compositional principles shared between Wagner and verismo works; out of this examination, a musical-structural principle is proposed for replacing the prevailing but inadequate definition of “verismo” as realism in opera.

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