[Smt-talk] Passing and Neighboring 6/4s

chikinda at queensu.ca chikinda at queensu.ca
Sun Jan 24 10:59:19 PST 2010

I have been following
the contributions to this recent thread with interest, but have noted
that there have not been any references made to the literature of the
Romantic period (please forgive me if I have missed such a reference). 
I would like to offer an example from Brahm's Die Mainacht.  The B
section begins in bVI, and in the 3rd measure of this section (m. 17 of
the score) there is the progression I6 - (V6/4) - "I" with scale-degree
5 held as a common tone in the r.h. of the piano, which supports the
text "Taubenpaar, sein..."  I have put the "I" chord in quotations
because Brahms re-spells the tonic chord as V6/5/ii (or V/V/V) with #1
in the bass.  Thus, this example demonstrates another of usage of the 'passing 6/4,' specifically V6/4, this time in the Romantic period.  

Dmitri states: "Actually,
V6/4 is a great chord to think about.  The chord is much, much rarer
than you would expect from reading harmony textbooks.  Bach almost
never uses it (preferring viio6), and it is also exceedingly rare in
Mozart....  I
could just say that tonal composers often use I->IV6/4->I,
V->I6/4->V and IV6->I6/4->ii6, and that would cover ~95% of
the cases students encounter."

While I in no way
assume a comprehensive knowledge of the tonal literature, the growing
number of examples posted to the SMT-list gives me reason to question
the assumption in Dmitri's statement.  Further, I have reservations
about his actuarial approach to understanding the usage of the 6/4
chord because it seems devoid of context.  I would like to make
reference to another example of the 6/4 chord at the beginning of  Die Mainacht.  In
the opening gesture, the listener is greeted with I6/4 - (V) - I6/4;
here, over a pedal on scale-degree 5, there is a clear sense of the prolongation
of tonic, and the root-position V chord facilitates the statement of
scale-degree 2 in the melodic line of 1 - 2 - 3, which occurs in the
r.h. of the piano before the entrance of the vocal line.  A statistical accounting of the number of 6/4 chords present in this piece of music would in no
way shed light on the different ways in which these chords are being
used:  in the first example, it is used as a contrapuntal device to
prolong a harmony (what has traditionally been called a 'passing 6/4'), and, in the second example, it is used in a harmonic context as a way to
firmly establish the tonic in the opening gesture.  

Indeed, this preoccupation with statistics (a preoccupation that only appears to include the Mozart piano sonatas) brings to mind a wonderful story from my undergraduate days.  There are two cows in a farmer's field - one of which, unfortunately, finds a gap in the fence and wanders out onto the road.  A car drives around the bend and does not have enough time to avoid hitting the animal, which dies in the ensuing accident.  The headline in the local paper the next day reads: "Inattentive Driver Kills 50% of Farmer's Livestock!"  The headline, which is accurate on one level, does not address the context of the situation.  While we may quibble about the taxonomic accuracy of the labels ascribed to the various 6/4 chords, the categories themselves have the benefit of encouraging the student to consider the ebb and flow between the melodic and the harmonic - the context of the situation.  David Beach states this thought more eloquently in his article, "The Functions of the Six-Four Chord in Tonal Music": "The
most important assumption that can be drawn from the preceding
discussion is that the six-four chord, like all musical events, must be
related to its context; and it is precisely this context which
determines its function."

Thus, I believe the goal pedagocially should not be "this type of 6/4 chord occurs x amount of times vs. that type of 6/4 chord which only occurs y
amount of times and as a result should be dismissed out of hand," but rather, "isn't it interesting that this type of
6/4 chord is used in this particular instance - what can we learn from


Michael Chikinda
Assistant Professor, Music Theory
School of Music, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario

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