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OVERALL, Joel

Fall 2011, 41:5, pages 439 - 454

Piano and Pen:  Music as Kenneth Burke’s Secular Conversion

Abstract:  Drawing on Kenneth Burke’s music reviews in The Nation, this article argues that the shifting music scene of the 1930s heavily influenced Burke’s development of the key term “secular conversion” in Permanence and Change. While reviewing works by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, Burke also witnessed audience reactions to (and often acceptance of) jarring atonal works by Schönberg, Debussy, and others, leading to music reviews that focused on musical as well as rhetorical matters. Burke’s interest in music provides a “perspective by incongruity” that illuminates the often-overlooked key term “graded series” as a type of secular conversion that informs Burke’s dialectic in A Grammar of Motives. A greater understanding of “perspective by incongruity,” “piety,” and “graded series” through music provides a window into the possibilities of linguistic transformation that bridges Burke’s continuously merging, dividing, and transcending dialectic in A Grammar of Motives.


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