[Smt-talk] Fwd: [AMS-L] Augmented sixth chords

Carol Baron cbaron at ms.cc.sunysb.edu
Sat Nov 26 18:10:37 PST 2011

I found this contribution from 2006 to add to the recent +6 discussion.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 	[AMS-L] Augmented sixth chords
Date: 	Sun, 21 May 2006 17:23:31 -0400
From: 	Mark DeVoto <mdevoto at GRANITE.TUFTS.EDU>
Reply-To: 	American Musicological Society <AMS-L at LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU>

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To the fellowship:

At the recent fourth quinquennial Schenker Symposium at Mannes College
of Music, I was moved by an observation in Eric Wen's excellent paper on
the augmented sixth chord to make some further observations.  As a
self-appointed authority on the peculiarities of the various kinds of
augmented sixth, I now report some thoughts.

The essence of the augmented sixth chord is the eponymous interval,
which in its usual disposition appears in the outer voices of the
harmony, resolving by outward expansion to the octave: the minor sixth
degree descends, the raised fourth degree ascends.  The complexion of
the different augmented sixth chords is determined by the other voices.
Here we will consider augmented sixth chords as though in the key of C,
with Aflat in the bass and Fsharp in the soprano.  The chords of the
three standard national names, Italian, German, and French, all include
C in the tenor, differing only in the alto; likewise the chord of the
doubly augmented fourth (Aflat-C-Dsharp-Fsharp), which in the
Piston-DeVoto /Harmony /fifth edition is dubbed the "Swiss" sixth
(others have called it the "Alsatian" sixth), because it is
enharmonically equivalent to the German sixth but is notationally a
variant of the French.

In a paper I delivered at an AMS chapter meeting 26 years ago, I drew
attention to an unusual augmented sixth chord used by Schubert in three
different movements (abundantly in the finale) of his great C major
symphony of 1825.  Schubert notated it as a dominant seventh chord, but
in our C major paradigm we would consider it a German sixth
(Aflat-C-Eflat-Fsharp) with an irregular resolution, to an E flat major
six-three chord.  In the earlier editions of /Harmony/, Piston gave an
example of this chord in a song by Grieg, and so I whimsically called it
a "Norwegian" sixth in my paper of 1980.  I never published the paper,
but I was delighted when, two years later, Paul Badura-Skoda
independently pointed out exactly the same harmonic relationship (see
his "Possibilities and limitations of stylistic criticism in the dating
of Schubert's 'Great' C major Symphony," in Eva Badura-Skoda and Peter
Branscombe, /Schubert Studies: Problems of Style and Chronology/, 1982).

The paradigmatic French sixth is spelled Aflat-C-D-Fsharp.  Closely
related to this is the standard dominant seventh with raised fifth,
Aflat-Bflat-D-Fsharp, which is not usually classified as an augmented
sixth chord.  I mention it here because it serves, in m. 1 of Strauss's
/Till Eulenspiegel,/ as a springboard for what is to come.  Eric Wen's
Mannes paper pointed to the "pungent" chord (three oboes and English
horn) at mm, 47-48 and numerously thereafter, which in the paradigmatic
C form would be spelled Aflat-Cflat-D-Fsharp, resolving to an E flat
major six-three chord, and therefore, like the "Norwegian" sixth, is
only distantly related to C major.  I have devised roman-numeral
analyses for these chords but they are contortionist and cannot be
regarded as realistically functional.  The "Norwegian" is like the
raised supertonic seventh (in E flat major, root Fsharp) in the 6-5
position but it has a lowered third.  (It is easier to think of it as a
German in C irregularly resolving to III6, but I don't think anybody
hears it that way.)  The Till chord -- call it a "Swedish sixth" if you
want -- is like an E flat major Vo43 with raised fifth; Cflat is the
minor ninth.

I offer the sobriquet of "Belgian sixth" for another unusual
late-Romantic form, which in the C major paradigm would be spelled
Aflat-C-E-Fsharp, resolving to a C major six-four.  I say "Belgian"
because I first noticed it at the beginning of Franck's /Les Éolides/
(essentially the same music also appears in Psyché).  The beginning of
Act III of Debussy's /Rodrigue et Chimène/, just published, has the same
chord; one wonders if Debussy might have actually been thinking of
Franck.  Like the French sixth, but not the German, this chord maps with
the whole-tone scale, which is not surprising in Debussy's harmony at
this stage of his development.  Like the ordinary raised supertonic
seventh chord and the closely related "Swiss" sixth, this is an
auxiliary chord.

I am on the lookout for other unusual and perhaps undescribed types of
augmented sixth chords, if anyone is interested in following up this
recondite and pilpulistic subject.

Mark DeVoto
Tufts University
mdevoto at granite.tufts.edu

Technique never exists devoid of invention; what does exist
is invention which has still to create its technique.

            Arnold Schoenberg, "Problems in Teaching Art," 1911


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