Eighteenth-century composers showed remarkable consistency in their musical settings to operatic scenes with religious connotations. This stable coupling between signifier (slow tempo, soft dynamics, chorale texture, I-V-vi opening) and signified (expressive attributes such as serenity, spirituality, or transcendence) constitutes what McKee (2007) calls the sacred hymn topic. The inclusion of a chord progression in the definition of a topic is unusual, but the sacred hymn contains precise harmonic and melodic features—which coincide with the first stages of the Romanesca schema (Gjerdingen 2007). This paper investigates the relationship between the Romanesca and the sacred hymn through corpus analysis, contributing to the emerging study of interactions between schemata and topics (Byros 2014, Caplin 2014, Rice 2014).
A corpus representative of the music heard in Vienna between 1775-1800 reveals that a high proportion of Romanescas share attributes with the sacred hymn, that the schema appears with higher frequency in sacred works, and more often in opera seria than opera buffa. Gjerdingen does not observe affiliations of the Romanesca with affect or genre, but by the end of the century these associations seem strong. Although the schema might have originally lacked a semantic dimension, it acquired ceremonial meanings over time, arguably functioning as a signifier of the past.
Analytic vignettes from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven show the sacred Romanesca in context. This music illustrates that attending to relations between topics and schemata can enhance music analysis and help reconstruct the experiences of historical listeners attuned to their subtle but far-reaching interactions.