Sunday, July 23, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 1

This is where the rubber meets the road: now we have to really come to grips with the structure of Stravinsky's music which is what Taruskin takes up in the next chapter: "Chernomor to Kashchey: Harmonic Sorcery." He pulls no punches here, the chapter is heavily larded with musical examples. Incidentally, this is how you can tell a book intended for musicians from those intended for the general public: any form of musical notation is absolutely prohibited in the latter. Even a book that appears to be for a specialized musical audience, like the Cambridge Handbook on the Rite of Spring, does not have an overabundance of musical examples, though certainly the essential ones. But the Taruskin volume is chock full of extensive musical examples (not to mention footnotes).

He begins the chapter with Rimsky-Korsakov's comment, after an evening in which Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov's wife, Nadezhda, had played through the Schubert late C-major symphony in a piano four-hands arrangement. He said that before Schubert certain "bold and unexpected" modulations simply did not exist. For Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert was the father of modern music. What kind of modulations was he referring to?

I want to just back up a bit and fill in a bit of background here. Music in the Western world, for a long time, was based on the individual melodic line. Most music in most places is still structured in this way. But in Western music going back eight or nine hundred years, the practice of combining independent melodic lines became the standard practice. In order that they blend in a pleasing way and not clash, certain methods or rules were adopted. This is where the idea of consonance and dissonance came from. Some notes clash, are dissonant, while others blend, are consonant. A good piece of music actually uses both these phenomena so as not to be bland and boring. But there were pretty strict rules for how dissonances were to be handled or resolved.

As we move into the 15th century, harmony begins to develop a life of its own as composers like DuFay developed techniques like fauxbourdon to harmonise melodic lines. (I know I am getting into esoteric knowledge when Blogger starts underlining words in red, even though I know they are spelled correctly!) Roughly from 1600, harmony became more and more structurally prominent and the idea of functionality came to the fore. Functional harmony was the common practice from around 1600 to around 1900, though just how it functioned changed enormously. Taruskin points out in passing that a good book on the use of harmony in the 19th century still has to be written!

The first stage of functional harmony focused on the idea of a tonic and a dominant. Pieces of music basically began in the tonic, the harmony built on the first note of the scale, or tonic. Then the music moved to the dominant harmony, that built on the fifth note of the scale. A couple of other chords or harmonies were used built on the fourth note of the scale, the subdominant (which prepared or led up to the dominant) and the sixth note of the scale (which was used to stand in for the tonic in a deceptive cadence), the submediant. Pop music to this very day rarely uses any harmonies other than these basic ones, though jazz certainly does. Closure is achieved by simply returning to the tonic after the dominant. This harmonic movement, from dominant to tonic, is called a cadence and all tonal music ends with one.

The tonic/dominant relationship was so powerful that it was soon extended in various ways. One was by using secondary dominants, that is, any harmony or chord can be preceded by its dominant. The whole harmonic space can also be organized by the circle of fifths:

As you move up by fifths, each key adds a sharp, while as you move down by fifths, each key adds a flat. This enabled modulation, the movement from one key to another, to be handled in a clear and organized way. A great deal of music, especially in the Baroque and Classical periods, is filled with harmonic sequences, which are passages that move through different harmonies in a specific pattern. The most common are ones that descend or ascend by fifths. Here is a good page on that. Sequences were used as a kind harmonic engine to drive the music forward.

By the time we get to Schubert and the early Romantic period, composers were looking for something different. Rather than driving forward, they wanted to pause, reflect and give the music an inwardness. What Schubert did was to exploit and normalize the use of sequences that moved by thirds rather than fifths: these are called mediant progressions. As Taruskin notes, third relations operate in Schubert on every structural level. Here is a harmonic reduction of a forty-bar passage from the Finale to the C-major symphony that provides an example. The chords marked "x" are flat submediants that have no functional role in harmonic structure up to this point. They alternate brusquely with the tonic and only work because of the common pitch, C, that unites them:

The flat submediant, a major third below the tonic, A flat major in the key of C, was the Romantic harmony par excellence and its use is largely credited to Schubert. That other harmony you see, the F# diminished chord, also has a mediant origin, it is two minor thirds above the tonic. Both these chords contain a C natural, which links them to the tonic.

This might be enough harmonic theory for one post, so let's listen to that Schubert symphony. This is the "Great" Symphony in C major (so-called because there is another, shorter, symphony by Schubert also in C major) with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Incidentally, in the first movement Schubert inserts a complete circle of major thirds within a circle of fifths!


Will Wilkin said...

OK Bryan I have to comment because --what are the odds?-- I just put on a CD of Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert's Symphony #9 (in Stockholm in 1943) and now come to this article to read about it! WHAT ARE THE ODDS? In this case, 1:1.

Anyway, in these fortunate circumstances, I hear the example as I read and now write.

As I am an amateur future-musician with 27 months of self-taught violin experience and only a college music appreciation course about 30 years ago, your article goes a bit over my head. But I've been studying enough to at least reach for it, to try to get SOMETHING out of your article. So here's what a musical kindergartener gets:

1) The seemingly odd interval of a "flat submediant" (flat sixth) is not so weird at all when viewed the other direction --as a major third below the tonic.

2) Don't I recall that in ancient and medieval music the fifth was the interval most used, and it was in the renaissance era that thirds started to become important in melodic lines? But my memory must be fuzzy, since when I think of Gregorian music those intervals often seem much closer than fifths, probably a lot of it could even be said to move stepwise rather than skipwise, no? (I realize in the internet age, there is no excuse for stupid questions as I could research this quickly and write with more pretension --but here I'm being candid as if we're talking across a bar table without devices.

3) No doubt in the romantic there is more and more liberation of melodic lines from the kinds of constricting rules of earlier ages. I write this in a positive tone but since my deepest comfort is in the early baroque, where my amateur non-technical understanding can only say "it seems melody has not yet come to full freedom and dominance (there's that word again), but rather melodic lines often strike me as arpeggios or at least having a lot of chordal qualities rather than whimsical independence."

OK Bryan, that's all I've got on this, I'm just not technical enough to really talk to you but at least we're listening to the same music!

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, thanks for just leaving a comment! My Stravinsky posts, to which I devote a lot of effort, attract almost no comments, so I sometimes wonder if anyone is reading them.

They are very technical posts, I know. The truth is that most musicians, even ones who have spent their lives playing in well-known professional orchestras, are not highly trained in music theory. Nor do they have to be. The only people in the music world who are, are composers, theorists and musicologists and I'm afraid that I have to confess that I belong to at least two of those groups! So don't feel bad if I lost you in this post.

You just missed one thing, really: what I am talking about here is not melodic intervals, but harmony, chords built on particular notes of the scale. You are quite correct, in Medieval music the typical melodic interval was NOT the fifth. More typically were close intervals like the second and third. Later on, in the Baroque and Classical periods, melodies were often fashioned out of notes from the triad, so typically thirds with the occasional fourth or fifth. Have a listen to Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for a typical example.

But this whole post is about harmony, not melody. What you should do is pick up a basic music theory text and read about how melodies are hamonised. That should do it!

Will Wilkin said...

OK Bryan, but take some "melodic" violin music like the sonatas of Biber, which I call "melodic" because, despite occasional double and triple stops, are for the most part a single horizontal line, a series of notes, ie, a string of melodic intervals. Yet much of it is pretty close to straight scales, with an occasional skipped note or accidental like a b flat, and probably some of the skipwise intervals could be heard as sideways chords, ie, arpeggios. I say this because I hear so much "harmony" in those melodic lines and not much genuine (free and arbitrary like the romantics) melody. AND I happen to like that early baroque stuff where melodic intervals strike me as scales and chords, perhaps boring and formulaic and predictable to excitable romantics, but calming and reassuring to aesthetic conservatives like me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh no, there is loads of harmony in those pieces. Think of it like this: melody is the horizontal aspect and harmony the vertical aspect. That melodic line is outlining or suggesting a particular harmony. Then in the next measure or phrase there is a different harmony suggested. The movement from one harmony to the next is the harmonic progression.

Will Wilkin said...

Thank you Bryan. Reading your last comment felt like a bit of a breakthrough for me. I suppose I already instinctively understood that certain horizontal line passages were outlining a particular harmony, but you're opening my eyes to the fact that there are a succession of such passages and they are progressing through a series of harmonizations, I suppose in a way roughly comparable to what we call chord progressions in a modern song?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, exactly! A lot of music theory is simply making people aware of things that they already know instinctively just from playing music.

Steven said...

FWIW, I read these posts avidly, but as I know next to zilch about the subject, it doesn't usually occur to me to comment. (I would happily add a 'thanks for writing this' to each post, but I imagine that would get tedious, fast.) So please do keep posting these -- I really appreciate all the effort you put in. I've in fact been listening to Schubert for the first time this week and just the couple of paragraphs you have on him here were very useful, and a good springboard

Will Wilkin said...

Oh and now I remember more clearly why I wrote above that the 5th was more important in medieval music and later the third came to be "dominant." I got that in my readings a few months ago on the history of scales and tunings and temperaments. The Pythagorean scale basically spiraled up through perfect fifths and the higher steps would just keep getting cut in half to bring them back into the appropriate octave. Then as more modern music of the renaissance and baroque came, the third became the more perfect (or at least important and used) interval and scales were more defined by thirds. After all, octaves of doubling frequencies don't easily mesh with divisions by 3 or 7 etc so commas had to put SOMEWHERE....

Bryan Townsend said...

Steven, thanks. Glad to hear you are reading them, so no need for repetitive mentions!

Will, the history of tunings and scales and temperaments is a pretty complex one, for sure.