[Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach

Paul Siskind siskinpa at potsdam.edu
Fri Jan 22 07:47:06 PST 2010

Dmitri Tymoczko wrote:

> 2. 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 has vi-iii and V-iii progressions  (m. 2,
> m. 11-12).  Are these "syntactical?"  Are you going to teach your
> students that V and vi chords can go to iii?  I would be inclined to
> say: "it's the sort of thing that Bach periodically does, especially
> in the chorales, but it is very rare in Mozart and in the music of
> other classical composers."
> 	I guess part of the problem is that if we insist that there's a
> single "syntax" that applies to all functionally harmonic music, from
> Bach chorales to Brahms, we have to allow for an incredibly broad
> range of possibilities.  Composers like Mozart typically use only a
> small fraction of these possibilities, which I consider the "core" of
> functional harmony.  When teaching the style, I would be much more
> likely to focus on the "core" possibilities, and to leave the rest for
> more advanced, style-specific investigations into particular
> composers' languages.  This "core" syntax is actually fairly easy to
> describe, and doesn't include a lot of weird possibilities.
> >
> DT

Hello Colleagues:  It seems to me that the recent discussion about the use
of 6/4 chords (and the way that we wish to conceive/describe/teach them)
has sidestepped an important consideration (which Dr. Tymoczko hints at in
the above statement).

Music is written by composers who desire to make an artistic statement. 
Sometimes a composer will write a phrase that follows the normative
stylistic syntax of the genre/style/era, because following the expected
syntax makes a particular type of artistic statement.  At other times,
however, the same composer might decide to write a phrase that
avoids/contradicts/subverts the expected normative syntax, because doing
so creates a different type of artistic statement (i.e. a sense of
tension, surprise, etc.).

An individual composer might adhere to the syntax in one phrase but
subvert it in the next; or a composer might write music which mostly
follows the syntax, but decide to write an "experimental" piece which
subverts the syntax; and some composers have the artistic temperament to
be innovative and consciously avoid falling back on using the expected
syntax throughout their oeuvre.  What was non-syntactical in an earlier
genre/style/era can become syntactical in a succeeding style/era; that's
how musical style has historically evolved.

Thus, it seems to me that a statement like "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" misses the mark, and distorts
the perspective of what we're trying to understand/describe/teach about
the evolution of musical styles.  Musical style did not evolve
teleologically toward the "pinnacles" of Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Schoenberg,
or any other particular composer.  Sometimes we anoint a particular
composer "great" because of the clarity and elegance with which they apply
a stylistic syntax; but sometimes we anoint a particular composer as
"great" precisely because they are radical and broke away from the
prevalent style/syntax of their time.

In similar manner, an approach such as "So, if you want to teach the
style, you have to impose some sort of cutoff -- you say, "I'm going to
describe what frequently happens, while leaving some of the weird stuff
out"" likewise misses the mark.  Yes, in order to understand/describe the
difference between normative and unusual usage within a syntax, we must
decide upon some kind of boundary.  However, simply dismissing "the weird
stuff" because it doesn't follow the normative syntax (wherever you've
drawn the cutoff line) imposes an unwarranted teleology.  Perhaps the
"weird" progression wasn't considered weird in the earlier style, and only
became weird after stylistic tastes had changed.  Perhaps the composer
specifically wanted a "weird" progression at that moment in that
particular piece for a specific artistic effect.  Perhaps later composers
were not allowed to use similar "weird" chord progressions because of
social strictures, dicta imposed by patrons, economic market pressures,
etc.  Simply dismissing "the weird stuff" ignores all of these important
(and interesting) ways of understanding musical style in full context.

So, the importance of understanding normative chord usage is not simply
the goal of valuatively labeling them as normal/weird, right/wrong,
syntactical/idiomatic, etc.  Rather, the whole point of understanding
normative usage is as a foil against which we understand the non-normative
usages (which are more important and more interesting, in terms of
understanding the evolution of musical style).  Yes, we do have to
understand and teach what's normative, but that should not be the point of
our endeavor.  "Art" is created by the juxtaposition of the normative
versus the unusual.  Unfortunately, many textbooks (and teaching
approaches) fall short, and in their zeal for explicating the normative
they dismiss the importance of the "rest of the stuff."

Just my thoughts....

Dr. Paul A. Siskind
Professor of Composition and Theory
The Crane School of Music, SUNY-Potsdam
Potsdam, NY  13676
(315) 267-3241

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