[Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach

Stephen Jablonsky jablonsky at optimum.net
Fri Jan 22 09:08:05 PST 2010

Paul has certainly put the question at hand into a laudable perspective. As I read his contribution I was reminded of a piece by Mozart (a fantasia, not a sonata) in which the composer displays both his Jekyll and Hyde compositional personality in alternating sections. If you wish to teach students about tonality this would not be the piece to use. Here is a fragment of an article I wrote a number of years ago that discusses tonic delay--not something we would recommend to amateurs ("Do not try this at home"). I have always felt that, if you want to teach tonality, the first prelude from Bach's WTC is about as good as it get in defining a nice set of usable harmonic boundaries. Using the words "normal" or "usual" when referring to the output of great composers is quite amusing. It is only the second rate composers who stick to the predictable or the probable. Their music is second rate because it lacks the unexpected moments of inspired danger that are the hallmarks of true genius. Any teacher who has tried to show these extraordinary moments to their students has usually found themselves quite alone in the deep appreciation of the magic because most of today's students do not have the extensive experience of listening to music from the common practice period and cannot discriminate between the music that "follows the rules" and that which does not.

       An extraordinary example of tonic delay may be found in the compositional game plan of the Fantasia in C minor (K.475) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a piece that never has three flats in the key signature.  This masterpiece, written in 1785, is 181 measures long and the first cadence in the tonic occurs just eight measures from the end.  The musical materials leading up to this perfect authentic cadence are presented in a dramatic structure which sharply contrasts sections of extreme chromaticism and tonal instability with interpolated palliative ones that are almost entirely diatonic. What, on first hearing, may sound like a loosely constructed fantasy piece, more improvisational than not, turns out to be a tightly knit series of motivic and harmonic events that hang together with unexpected integral logic. This, of course, will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been delighted by Mozart’s love of compositional slight of hand and tomfoolery. This piece is certainly about the puppeteer manipulating the emotional condition of his audience by a series of seemingly discrete scenarios that covers a wide range of moods.

On Jan 22, 2010, at 10:47 AM, Paul Siskind wrote:

> 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."

Prof. Stephen Jablonsky, Ph.D.
Music Department Chair
The City College of New York
160 Convent Avenue S-72
New York NY 10031
(212) 650-7663

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