[Smt-talk] Augmented 6th chords

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Fri Nov 25 14:11:30 PST 2011

 From Paula Telesco's most helpful recent post:

> It is to this last sentence that [Calcott] adds the footnote: "See  
> the example in Shield. The music of France, Italy, and Germany,  
> cannot be illustrated in a smaller compass than by the use of these  
> three chords. The feebleness of the French sixth compared with the  
> elegance of the Italian and the strength of the German, leaves no  
> doubt of their superior excellence. The admirable genius of Graun  
> knew when to employ Italian sweetness, and when to change it for  
> German force."

Written by an Englishman at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. Ahem....

Obviously, he was going to disapprove of the chord that he thinks of  
as "French". The (to my mind) still unanswered question, however, is  
why the nationalistic label was deemed appropriate for this chord, or  
indeed any of the labels? Was the "French" 6th actually used more by  
French composers c. 1800? It certainly appears in Beethoven (see  
Pathetique Sonata, 3rd mvt., 2nd theme); was he invoking a "French"  
sound by its use? Is it evidence of his latent Francophilia (or at  
least admiration of the Corsican general)?

Everyone now knows that the "French" 6th is a whole-tone chord, and  
that seems a curious coincidence, given the strong association of  
whole-tone sonorities with early-20th-century French music. Was it a  
coincidence? Did French composers have a much older predilection for  
these sonorities? Some evidence of frequent appearance of the "French"  
6th in earlier French music might be interesting evidence in this  
regard, but of course there are lots of other whole-tone chords, too.

The "Russian" 6th chord mentioned by Keith Salley is, in fact, very  
common in tonal Skriabin (as is the "French" 6th sonority, usually  
functioning as an altered Dominant, often in tritone-transposition  
contexts), and not unheard of in other Russian composers like Rimsky  
or Rakhmaninof. It is also a whole-tone chord, but not particularly  
French in sound (at least to my ears). But I do seem to remember  
finding it here and there in Franck.

If John Clough were still with us, I'm sure he'd be shaking his head  
at the strangeness of harmonic history...

Best to all,


Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Chair of the Department
Department of Music, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
716-645-0639 [direct line]
716-645-3824 [fax]
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

More information about the Smt-talk mailing list