[Smt-talk] "Core syntax" and 6/4 chords etc.

Olli Väisälä ovaisala at siba.fi
Mon Jan 25 05:55:20 PST 2010

Dear List,

FIRST a very basic note on "core syntax" and 6/4 chords. This point  
seems self-evident and I have already made it, but since it almost  
seems to have been forgotten at parts of this discussion, pardon me  
for repeating it this context:

Dissonance treatment, if anything, can be described as part of the  
"core syntax" of conventional tonality (an aspect it inherits from  
the preceding modal era). Dissonances resolve by step, and in "strict  
style" they are also approached by step or by suspension. Since bass- 
related fourths are (usually) dissonant, it follows that they require  
stepwise voice-leading, which can be described as passing,  
neighboring, or suspension (or incompletely neighboring/appoggiatura,  
in freer style). Hence these categories are crucial simply for  
relating 6/4 usages with more general principles of dissonance  
treatment, principles that have enormous descriptive power for  
centuries of Western art music.

SECOND, a comment on Dmitri's view that if we restrict ourselves to  
quarter-note chords in Bach chorales, we "find many fewer passing 6/4  
chords than Olli does, and they almost all conform to the standard  
type," i.e., between IV6 and II6/5. Actually, the share of "non- 
standard" 6/4s in my little sample does not diminish significantly,  
if we make the rhythmic restriction Dmitri suggests. My sample of 42  
chorales included 15 passing 6/4s, 8 of which were  
"standard" (including cases in which II6/5 is chromaticized to become  
V6/5 of V). Of these 15 occurrences, 7 are quarter-note chords. Of  
these 7, 4 are "standard" and 3 "non-standard." Hence the share of  
"non-standard" occurrences is almost half of the occurrences (7/15 or  
3/7), whether or not we count eight-note chords or not. (For those  
interested in the "non-standard" occurrences, I'll attach a list below.)

Of course, my the sample is too small for drawing general  
consequences (and my figures may not be accurate, since I browsed  
rather quickly through the chorales). But be this sample  
representative or not, I sympathize with Michael Chikinda's comments  
concerning the limited value of such statistics. While I do find it  
interesting to know what usages are typical in which style, a general  
principle of passing 6/4s, related with the even more general  
principle of dissonance treatment, helps us to cope with the less  
typical usages as well.

THIRD. I would like to add that while the significance of passing or  
neighboring chords for the "core syntax" is most easily justified for  
dissonant chords, the generalization of these notions to consonant  
situations is not much further from the "core." See, for example, the  
I6–V6/4–I and VII4/2–"V"–VII4/3 progressions in Beethoven's  
Pathetique, mm. 1–2. For grasping the syntax, it is crucial to  
understand that both the dissonant V6/4 and the consonant "V"  
function as passing chords. What would we think of a harmony course  
that does not prepare students for recognizing this just because such  
passing progressions are not statistically prominent in some  
repertoire (say, Mozart Sonatas)?

FOURTH, a comment on another of Dmitri's statements:

"It's also important to remember that Bach chorales have a lot of  
genuinely weird stuff in them, stuff you don't find in Mozart or  
elsewhere.  The same chorale [#14] has vi-iii and V-iii progressions   
(m. 2, m. 11-12)."

I was astonished to see vi–iii characterized as "genuinely weird."  
Actually, there is no vi–iii in the measures Dmitri mentions, but I  
assume he refers to that in m. 1, after the initial ubbeat (please  
correct me if I am wrong). Here the iii occurs on a weak beat between  
strong-beat vi and IV supporting a passing 7^ in an 8^–7^–6^ top- 
voice progression. To me, this is anything but weird; it is one of  
the most characteristic functions of iii. ("vi–iii" combinations also  
occur in the extremely common sequence by descending thirds I–V, vi– 
iii, IV etc; I wonder whether sequences were excluded from Dmitri's  
Mozart counts?)

This is justs one detail which suggests that insofar as we wish to  
substantiate the "core syntax" of tonal harmony through statistical  
research, we are likely to miss essential aspects if that research is  
limited to two-chord successions with no consideration of aspects  
such as larger context, voice-leading, and meter (+ other kind of  
emphasis). I would like to add that I find Aldwell&Schachter's work  
impressive precisely for the reason that it so finely does allow for  
these features.

"Non-standard" passing 6/4s in chorales 1–42 (the numbering is from  
Neue Bach Ausgabe III/2.2, but I think it agrees with so called  
Riemenschneider numbering for these chorales):

1. Quarter-notes

– Chorale 11 (Jesu, nun sei geprieset), m. 17. Between C: V and d:  
II4/3 (perhaps possible to interpret as between IVn and II4/3 in d).
(The same chorale also includes a 6/4 in m. 19 between VI and II6/5,  
but since this only involves a passing motion in only one voice, I  
didn't include it in my count.)
– Chorale 21 (Herzlich tut mich verlangen), m 3. Between VII°6/5 of V  
and V6/5 of V.
– Chorale 21, m. 5. Between V4/2 and VII6.

2. Semi-accented eighth-notes

– Chorale 36 (Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist), m. 2. Between V4/2  
and VII6.
– Chorale 40 (Ach Gott und Herr), m. 7. Between VI and IV (all voices  

3. Unaccented eighths

– Chorale 14 (O Herre Gott, dein göttlich Wort), m. 10. Between II  
and V4/2.
– Chorale 18 (Gottes Scohn ist kommen), m. 2. Between III of G = VI  
of D and II6/5 of D.

Olli Väisälä
Sibelius Academy
ovaisala at siba.fi

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