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Harmony and Autonomous Form

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Colleges and conservatories still may offer courses on Harmony (as distinguished from Counterpoint), or more likely “theory” — but music students anywhere are very lucky if they get more than one full year of written “theory” of any kind, and harmony might be a part of that. I had two full years of Harmony in college and have made a career studying it ever since; yet when, in 1978, I revised Walter Piston’s classic textbook, Harmony, after his death, my friend Arthur Komar, a Schenker theorist (he wrote a short and crystalline book, Theory of Suspensions), asked me, “Why beat a dead horse?” Well, there are a few reasons. What I offer here is that harmony involves specific entities, which actually can exist as musical quantities and not mere abstract concepts.

Claude Debussy’s beloved Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune is a particularly illustrative instance of “progressive tonality,” which I have discussed before (November  27, 2020). Faune, in three formal sections as Debussy so often preferred, has a palpable tonal structure closely organized around a single pitch-class, C sharp, and its different harmonic manifestations. The melodic line in the upper voice guides everything, with art nouveau sinuosity, from beginning to end, almost entirely in woodwinds and hardly ranging below middle C. Everyone remembers the solo flute, beginning on C sharp, descending to G and returning, twice, and then ending with the notes of an E major triad:

The two keys, C-sharp minor and E major, are implied in the paradigm — relative minor and major, with the same key signature. This famous flute melody reappears, varied, as a framing device throughout the first and third sections of the entire work.

At m. 11, it appears with C sharp the seventh above a D major triad, already tonally distant from C sharp or E. At m. 21 the C sharp is an added sixth above the E-major triad, which relates to m. 3; this harmony is further diluted at m. 26, where the supporting harmony for the C sharp is a major ninth above the E major triad (call the C sharp a 13th above the E bass, if you wish). At m. 31 the flute melody is so varied that it doesn’t even rate the flute any more; it appears in the clarinet, beginning on G, with C sharp in the bass — the reverse of m. 1-2. By m. 37 the flute melody and the gravitating C sharp have disappeared entirely.  

The central section of the work is a strong D-flat major, with an entirely new melody that clings only tenuously to that D flat/C sharp. The only trace of the flute melody is its ghost, found in the bass at mm. 55-58, D flat to G and back again. A dynamic climax, the only ff  in the piece (Toujours animé), arrives at m. 70 and gradually subsides.

The third section of Faune begins at m. 79 and marks the return of the flute melody (Mouvt. du Début) beginning not on C sharp but on E — and one of several strokes of genius in this work is the appearance of C sharp in the bass (under an E major triad) in m. 81. At m. 86 this passage is repeated in the very remote E-flat major — so remote, indeed, that the melody is given to the oboe, not the flute. In the final statement of the flute melody (m. 100-101, doubled by solo cello) the C sharp is harmonized for the first (and only) time by an actual C sharp chord; but the seventh (B) is added to the chord, and the fifth (G sharp), not the root (C sharp), is in the bass — an exquisite attenuation of the Faun’s memory, almost but not quite complete, of that blissful afternoon. The final four measures of the piece give a faint trace of the beginning melody, but in E major, with muted horns and violins. C sharp alternates with E, and dissolves into the final harmony of the work, a thin-spaced E major triad. The next-to-last is a C-sharp minor triad based on A sharp (m. 109), identical in pitch-classes with the first chordal sonority we heard (m. 4).

It is the harmonic structure that makes the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune a uniquely autonomous form. Debussy had little use for sonatas, fugues, scherzos, variations, and all the academic stuff; he created his own individual structures.  And the harmony is what keeps them as rigorously refined as a Beethoven allegro or even the Tristan Prelude. (If you don’t fully believe this somewhat technical outburst, play the exx. at the piano; then listen to a record, with score in hand, and then it will become clearer.)

Note: The examples come from a 1959 recording by the Orchestre National de France.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Harmony theory is still just as relevant as counterpoint, as both are still used heavily in writing choral music, especially for unaccompanied singers. One might not know it from looking at concert programs, however, as much contemporary choral work is being sung (and commissioned) for worship in churches, temples, et cet. that is out of sight and out of mind from the coverage of media and the music commentariat. One might even be tempted to say that, as compared to orchestral music, we have been in a silver age of choral music since the early 20th century and continue to be in it.

    Comment by Percy Larsen — May 20, 2021 at 7:51 am

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