[Smt-talk] cadential 6/4 chords

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Mon Feb 13 09:40:03 PST 2012

As Rick elegantly reminds us (in the spirit of Lewin and many other  
greats of the discipline), dialectic richness is the name of our  
game. Reductionism, the belief that statements of the form "X is  
nothing but a Y" are important, is the enemy—tempting, seductive,  
flattering, but oh so destructive.


PS In the sketches that UB undergraduates learn to do in their first- 
year harmony course, a cadential 6/4 is usually shown as a [I 6/4] on  
the first level—the RN indicating that affiliation with Tonic  
material, and square brackets serving as a reminder that this is not  
a normal functional Tonic chord. On the second level, it then becomes  
part of a larger V chord that begins where the cadential 6/4 began— 
with qualifying figured bass symbols 6–5 and 4–3 on the V to show  
what are now accented non-chord-tones on this level. It's not an  
ideal solution, but it is an attempt to capture more than one aspect  
of what common-practice composers clearly recognized as a distinct  
and discriminate harmonic entity. This kind of phenomenological  
balancing act is almost impossible with acknowledging more than one  
level of harmonic activity, as well as more Lewinesque overlaps of  
functionality on any one level—one more reason why "beginning"  
harmony instruction should be multi-level right from the start!

On 13 Feb 2012, at 11:49 AM, Richard Cohn wrote:

> Yet another intervener, here to endorse Dimitar's position on the  
> hybrid status of cadential 6/4 chords. My own experience of 6/4  
> chords that arrive in cadential positions (near end of phrase,  
> fifth degree in bass, strong metric position) is that, under most  
> circumstances, the arrival carries with it a first-default  
> expectation of resolution to a dominant, with the generic down-by- 
> step voice-leading, etc. When that first default is executed, I  
> think there are good reasons to consider the 6/4 as a dominant  
> chord with displaced voices; and those reasons have been amply  
> articulated in this discussion.
> But there are times that my default expectations are not fulfilled.  
> I come to find out that this "dominant" chord does things that only  
> a tonic can do: for example, it can support thematic material that  
> has been previously securely in the key of the tonic, and is  
> untransposed from its previous presentations. To the extent that I  
> rely on such associations, I hear that thematic presentation as  
> being IN THE TONIC, and hence hear the chord that supports the  
> thematic material in the tonic as being a tonic chord, even though  
> it is in 6/4 position. When Beethoven begins the recapitulation of  
> the first movement of the Appassionata or of the 4th Symphony, or  
> when Schubert brings in the counter-statement of the first theme of  
> his Bb-major Sonata, over a bass 5^ that has been approached as if  
> it were a 6/4 preparing a dominant arrival, then we are being shown  
> how what we initially took as bearing dominant function is revealed  
> to do things that only a tonic can do; put differently, is revealed  
> to "function like a tonic." (Brahms was a master of this, as Peter  
> Smith has shown in more than one publication.)
> The origin is perhaps the classical cadenza, which is  
> characteristically approached through what Vasili Byros identifies  
> as a le-so-fi-sol bass scheme, culminating in a 6/4 chord that is  
> adorned with a fermata. Here, if we are appropriately acculturated,  
> we have full awareness of two things. Our global knowledge of the  
> classical style makes us aware that the fermata chord is approached  
> in just the way that a pre-dominant cadential 6/4  
> characteristically is ---- from an applied chord whose proper  
> resolution is the dominant--- and that the fermata chord, to the  
> extent that it fulfills the expectation of its application (as V or  
> vii of dominant, not of tonic), bears DOMINANT function. At the  
> same time, our somewhat more specific knowledge of the conventions  
> of the classical concerto make us expect that the soloist will  
> begin improvising on thematic material in the TONIC--- and that the  
> fermata chord therefore bears TONIC function.
> To claim that such a chord is nothing but tonic, or nothing but  
> dominant, and walk away with arms folded, is to deny oneself access  
> to the richness of this dialectic.
> Many will recognize the extent to which I stand on the shoulders  
> here of David Lewin's "Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of  
> Perception," which is my perpetual reference point for thinking  
> about music-theoretic problems that otherwise might take the form  
> of a forced choice between non-overlapping categories.
> --Rick Cohn
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Prof. Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Chair of the Department
Music Department, 220 Baird Hall, University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Private Office Line: 716-645-0639
Office Fax: 716-645-3824

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