[Smt-talk] Stravinsky, sonorities, and nomenclature

Victor grauer victorag at verizon.net
Tue Feb 17 14:02:50 PST 2009

At 02:12 PM 2/16/2009, Rebecca Hyams wrote:
>    Currently, I'm in the process of working on my MA thesis, where 
> I'm looking at Stravinsky's alteration of his sources in 
> Pulcinella. As I'm working, my biggest challenge is dealing with 
> harmonies and what to call them. I wanted to pose my conundrum to 
> the theory community, and though I realize that no single solution 
> is perfect, I want to see what other ideas are out there (or if 
> perhaps there's a way to reconcile a method I'm already familiar 
> with with the realities of the music).

The analysis of Stravinsky's harmonies is imo one of the greatest 
challenges in all of music theory. He used no system, as did 
Schonberg and his school, or the serialists who followed him. Nor do 
there seem to be any other procedures, such as using a germinal chord 
or motive, etc., of the sort used by so many 20th century composers. 
I am continually astonished when studying Stravinsky at how strange 
so many of his chords look on paper and how perfectly right -- and 
even terrifically right -- they actually sound. Imo he could easily 
be ranked among the greatest harmonists in the history of music -- 
but unlike so many others, he cannot be credited with having produced 
a harmonic system, as none is apparent anywhere in any of his works, 
even the serial works.

If we look for a system I don't think we'll find one. But if we look 
at this music from another viewpoint, as a fundamentally subversive 
art, akin to the hermetic cubism of Picasso and Braque, and also, 
perhaps, a "semiotic" art, then I think we can get some insight into 
how it works. What is subversive in Stravinsky is the way he very 
precisely undercuts the tonal system he inherited from the masters 
(from Bach to Rimsky) who preceded him. He sets up certain 
expectations and then does something to completely undercut them -- 
as for example when he undercuts the tension associated with the V7 
chord by adding the tonic. We hear the V7 and "get the idea" behind 
it, but at the same time the traditional effect is totally 
"denatured," so what we have is more in the way of commentary, or 
even a kind of semiotic analysis, than the usual sort of musical 
"expressivity." In Pulcinella his acts of subversion -- and semiotic 
"commentary" are very subtle and also very sparsely employed, as 
opposed to the Octet and so many of the other neoclassical works, 
where they abound.

In the context of my own theoretical work on modernism in general, I 
would place Stravinsky along with Schoenberg and his school, as a 
master of what I have called "negative syntax." (For more on this you 
might want to take a look at my paper, "Toward a Unified Theory of 
the Arts," as published in Music Theory Online.) The reason why 
Stravinsky sounds tonal has nothing to do with his use of tonality in 
the traditional sense, and certainly not his use of the usual tonal 
progressions, which he also undercuts, but his use of certain 
sonorities as what could be called tonal "landmarks." Schoenberg and 
Webern do something very similar but they go out of their way to 
produce landmark sonorities that are clearly atonal (i.e., based on 
the augmented triad, the diminished seventh or what I've called the X 
chord -- perfect 4th above (or below) an augmented 4th). Stravinksy 
on the other hand usually turns single notes or triads (or open 
fifths) into landmark sonorities creating the illusion of tonality 
even where none exists.

As I see it, therefore, when analyzing Stravinsky, what we find 
ourselves analyzing is already a process of analysis. Hope this is 
helpful -- and not too confusing.

Victor Grauer
Pittsburgh, PA

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