In this paper I present a series of short and longer analyses of four romantic overtures by Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Wagner. The common element between these four works is the use of what I propose to call a “strong” subordinate theme: an unusually striking subordinate theme that, as soon as it appears, eclipses or overrules the preceding main theme, thus confounding what contemporaneous theories of sonata form would lead one to expect.
After briefly reviewing relevant aspects of the treatment of subordinate themes in Formenlehren from the second quarter of the nineteenth century, I present two different types of strong subordinate themes. In my first analysis—of Mendelssohn’s overture Die Hebriden (1830/32)—I transplant Janet Schmalfeldt’s notion of subordinate themes that “turn inward” to a symphonic context. Then, using as an example Berlioz overture Les Francs-juges (1826), I introduce a type of subordinate theme that seems to do exactly the opposite, namely “turn outward.” In both analyses, my focus is on how the subordinate themes in these overtures—introverted in the first case, extroverted in the other—are marked as “strong” through the interaction between intrinsic and contextual factors.
In the second section of my paper, I explore the broader formal and hermeneutic ramifications of extroverted strong subordinate themes in Berlioz’s overture Le Carnaval romain (1844) and in the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845). I argue that in both works, the strong subordinate theme fundamentally alters (“turns around”) the course of the form, most obviously so when it seems to take over the function of the main theme in the recapitulation.