[Smt-talk] Mozart harmonic progression

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Mon Apr 22 14:03:53 PDT 2013

Eric et al,

As a minor point of interest, this is the type of progression that I  
cited, oh, thousands of years ago now, in "Functional  
Extravagance" (MTS 1986), as one possible conceptual origin of the  
Tristan chord progression—in that the third and fourth chords in your  
formulation have some kind of equivalence with the first two "chords"  
in the Tristan Vorspiel (assuming the G# as chord-tone, of course).

Whether or not you find that claimed equivalence persuasive, there are  
lots of examples that I collected over the years, and you're right—a  
remarkable number of them are by Mozart. But not all.

My notebooks of examples are at school, and I'm home, so I can't give  
you the details at the moment, but will be able to tomorrow. (This  
situation is one reason that we've started the process of digitizing  
all these collected examples and storing them in the cloud, where at  
some point they might even be searchable...a process that will  
probably take at least another thousand years or so...I certainly  
don't expect to live to see the end of it.)

One preliminary question: how wedded are you to the v6 as being  
exactly the second chord in the succession? If memory serves me well,  
Mozart has a variety of ways of getting to the half-diminished-7th  
chord, some over a passing bass, some not. ("Functional Extravagance"  
quotes a well-known passage from the first movement of Mozart K. 550,  
which leaps thither directly from a Tonic over b3.) But he did seem  
inordinately fond of the double Dominant Preparation, first a modally- 
mixed chord (bass 6 from major, upper voice b3 from minor), followed  
by an augmented 6th as the bass passes down through b6 to 5. This  
chord-succession is strange and distinctive enough, no matter how it  
is approached, that you could justify thinking of it as the essential  
component, with a variety of approaches being the window-dressing.  
Whether Mozart invented the progression, I can't say—but whether or  
not he was the first, others (not least of whom might even be Wagner)  
then got a lot of further mileage from it.


PS One further point to complement the FE observation is the number of  
times that this Tristan-chord progression appears later in the opera,  
even in the Vorspiel itself, shoehorned back into a context where both  
chords are DPs, first over 6, then b6—i.e. followed by a clear  
Dominant over 5. (See Vorspiel mm. 89–90 in D, and then most tellingly  
mm. 99–100, in C!) All of these might well serve as "incomplete"  
examples of the progression you seek, without the Tonic or the passing  

> Colleagues,
> Point of curiosity -- those of you with corpus studies of Mozart at  
> hand may have a ready answer to this.
> There is a certain harmonic progression that seems to pop up in  
> Mozart's music in minor keys, and I have yet to find an example of  
> this exact progression in any other composer.  Arguments of  
> counterpoint vs. harmony aside, here is the basic idea:
> i - v6 - #viø7 - +6 - V (or cadential 6/4)
> So, in d minor, for instance:
> Dm - Am/C - Bø7 - It+6 - A
> While I know that chromatic and diatonic descents to the dominant  
> are commonplace and have a rich history, it is this precise sequence  
> of harmonies that I haven't found in any other composer with nearly  
> the frequency that I've seen it in Mozart.  Does anyone have  
> examples of this from another composer?  Is it more common in Mozart  
> than his contemporaries?
> -- 
> Eric Knechtges, DM
> Assistant Professor, Coordinator of Composition/Theory
> Northern Kentucky University
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Prof. Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Director of Graduate Studies
Director, Slee Institute of Tonal Harmony (420 Baird Hall)
Academic office: 410 Baird Hall
Office Phone: 716-645-0639
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

Mailing address;
Music Department, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
Department Fax: 716-645-3824

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