More and more, when I'm thinking about what is right or wrong with a piece of music, it is harmony that seems to be in question. The unrelenting dreariness of a lot of the music written between 1920 and 1960 is really a problem of harmony. The "emancipation of the dissonance" meant that the 'harmony' was always the same. Instead of the age-old principle of dissonance--resolution we just had dissonance--dissonance. How could that possibly work?
I choose this Bach chorale, not for its emotional content, but simply as an example of real harmony. The many chorales of Bach were collected soon after his death and published for the use of musicians, mostly composers. There have been several editions, but in one form or another, the collection has been in print since 1765. I would suspect that nearly every composer has a copy. Bach was a crucial figure in the move towards the system of tuning we use today: equal temperament. In order to make full use of the possibility of modulation, every key had to be usable. In the older tuning systems the key of C major was perfectly in tune, but a key like A flat major would be horribly out of tune. Equal temperament solves the problem. The period from Haydn to Beethoven made full use of this freedom of modulation. Here is another example of harmonic mastery:
The basic principle of harmony was the tension between dominant and tonic. Here Beethoven manages to be clearly in the key of A major while avoiding landing on it as much as possible. This gives the harmony a floating feeling as opposed to the solidity of Bach's harmony. The tonic/dominant tension was extended with secondary or applied dominants and the extremely useful devices of mixture (using harmonies borrowed from the minor in major keys and vice versa), the diminished seventh chord (which, due to its symmetry can go in any direction), the augmented sixth chords (which sound like a dominant, but actually prepare a different dominant) and the Neapolitan, which is a clever way of modulating to an unexpected key. The opening of "The Tempest" sonata by Beethoven shows his kind of harmonic thinking:
The harmonic 'system'--if we can call it that--of the Classical Period offered an incredible array of harmonic possibilities both flexible and powerful. The music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is inconceivable in the absence of the harmonic system they used to such miraculous effect. Alas, after the death of Beethoven in 1827, it began to collapse as composers began to dilute the basic relationships to the point where the tensions gradually disappeared in a morass of chromaticism. Composers like Chopin, also a remarkable harmonist, began using remote harmonies just for their color without the preparation that Beethoven would have found necessary:
Throughout the 19th century, harmony becomes more and more of a problem and some started to think that it needed to be completely replaced by a different system. The main candidate was Schoenberg's 12-tone method that uses all the possible notes in a specific order, subjected to contrapuntal treatment. So the whole axis of consonance/dissonance disappears. Here is an example:
Though there is much to be said for this music--especially in terms of its suitability to the times--it has not been accepted by audiences except in small doses. One critic said that Schoenberg could empty any concert hall. I think the problem comes back to harmony. This music is all dissonance.
In another post I will take up what followed the atonal phase and the attempts by the minimalist and process composers to reinvent harmony.