Monothematic Music

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Monothematic Music


a musical composition constructed on a single theme, which is used to unite the movements of the sonata and symphonic forms or the one-movement forms derived from them. An early example of a monothematic composition is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the initial theme of which is sounded in numerous variations in every movement.

Monothematic composition was most highly developed in the romantic period in program music by Berlioz and Liszt. In Berlioz’ Symphonic fantastique the main theme represents the hero’s beloved, who is inseparable from him at various moments in his life. The theme is repeatedly subjected to changes, which are especially significant in the finale. In Berlioz’ symphony Harold in Italy the principal theme, which personifies the hero and is written for solo viola, stands out against a background of programmatic musical pictures. Liszt’s symphonic poems were a new form combining the features of the sonata-allegro and the sonata and symphonic forms. Unity is imparted to the work by a single theme that is transformed in such a way that it makes a different impression on the listener in each stage of the plot’s development.

After the romantic period monothematic composition and the method of transformation of themes associated with it were treated more freely and combined with more conventional principles of compositional development (Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Saint-Saën’s Third Symphony, and Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony; and in Russian music, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Scriabin’s symphonies, Liapunov’s symphonies, and various symphonies by Shostakovich, especially the Seventh).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.