Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harmonic Deficiencies?

Back a couple of years I put up a lot of posts about harmony and the problem of harmony in modernist music. I just ran across a post by theorist Luke Dahn that has some similar observations. Go read the post "Vertically Challenged?" There are a lot of very intriguing observations there including this one:
 I remember when I was an upper class undergraduate composer who was beginning to look at graduate schools. I sent an email to University of Michigan composer William Bolcom asking if he had any advice for a young composer who was preparing for graduate studies in composition. His reply was curt: “Go study Beethoven.” Not the response I was expecting.
Arnold Schoenberg, in his book Fundamentals of Music Composition spends most of the time discussing examples taken from Beethoven! Mulling over that is a nice antidote to those absurd flights of fancy such as Alex Ross' recent essay/review on Beethoven that throws up all sorts of dust, but tells us virtually nothing about why Beethoven is such a good composer.

Luke mentions some thoughts of the compose Tristan Murail as well:
Murail, too, implies that composers who are harmonically deficient or indifferent would be well served to look at music of the past, especially considering how “harmony relates to form.”
The relationship between harmonic structure and phrase structure in Classical Era music is very striking and I have looked at that quite a lot, especially in my numerous posts on the Haydn symphonies.

Let's listen to some Haydn. Here is an early symphony, No. 34 in D minor, with a very long slow movement in D minor followed by three short movements in D major. It was written in 1765:


Rickard Dahl said...

I've read the article you linked and I've also read your post. It's a very interesting point that is being discussed. Harmony is indeed a very important aspect in music and it's a shame that composers nowadays are "vertically challenged". I don't think we need to go back to traditional tonal harmony though (not saying that you said that, just a general statement). There are other ways in which the harmony can be expressed powerfully than relying solely on the classical period model. One thing that is often pointed about Beethoven is that his harmonies are seemingly simple yet his output is very compelling. But you obviously can't look at harmony by itself as it is related to all other musical aspects including melody, counterpoint, form & orchestration/instrumentation. Real beauty comes when all the elements are combined in a clever and aesthetically pleasing way.

Bryan Townsend said...

Some of the most interesting harmony I have heard recently was in Stravinsky's Symphony in C. No, we can't go back to Classical or probably Romantic harmony either. So we just have to figure out some new ways to handle harmony.