Welcome to The Rest is Harmony, a new music analysis blog run by Georges Dimitrov, composer and theorist, currently a faculty member of the Department of Music at Concordia University, in Montreal.
Why this blog? The idea came first out of a passion for musical analysis, and then from the realization of how sparse quality complete analyses are to be found on the web, or even in published form. Most harmony and analysis manuals offer copious excerpts as examples, but complete pieces are few and far between outside the realm of graduate thesis and academic journals. And the ones that can be found, often rely on an “established” practice of harmonic analysis, without questioning the occasional lack of coherence of how things are traditionally done. Of course, part of the beauty of musical masterpieces is that they are multifaceted, and different approaches are not mutually exclusive, but highlight different aspects of the work. I humbly hope to offer here a fresh, modern and conceptually solid take on some classic pieces. For more information on the theoretical approach and the conventions used on the blog, I invite you to check out the Methodology page, which explains these matters in further detail.
Who is this blog for? Anyone who loves music and is interested in learning more about harmony and form. A background in music theory is essential however: the aim of the blog is not to teach harmony or analysis (this I already do in class) but to practice it.
And now, where to start? Well, I’ve always loved the architectonic aspects of cyclic works. And I’ve always loved Chopin, first as a romantic teenager studying piano, then as a theorist once I could fully understand the subtlety of his harmonic language. The Preludes are thus an obvious choice, full of potential for fun and challenging harmonic discussion. So here we go with number one:
It is no mystery that Chopin was a huge admirer of J.-S. Bach. The texture of his first Prelude thus pays homage to the opening pages of the Well-Tempered Clavier, with an arpeggiated chordal texture following a strict harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar. The texture is in 5 parts, 2 of them doubled; however, as opposed to the Bach Prelude in C where all parts always proceeded simultaneously at the speed of one note per chord, here the soprano is written in 2nd species counterpoint with two notes for one, adding some melodic tension through the usage of non-chord tones (identified in red in the analysis). At the beginnings and endings of sentences, these non-chord tones appear as neighbors or passing tones on the 2nd beat, leaving a stable chord-tone on the 1st beat; but in the middle of each sentence, Chopin wisely turns all non-chord tones into 1st beat appoggiaturas to increase tension. The true chord is thus only heard at the very end of the bar, a process typical of Chopin and romantic harmony in general, which we will see again many times during the cycle of Preludes. Here a reduction which allows a clearer view of the harmony with doublings and rhythmic complexities removed – the red brackets below the harmony highlight the structural harmonic units (SHUs) that segment the harmonic flow:
Formally, the Prelude is quite straightforward: a simple parallel period composed of two sentences, identified a & a’ in teal on the score, organized in a standard antecedent/consequent relationship where the first ends on a half-cadence and the second on a full cadence. If the structure is common, Chopin’s take on it here is however quite asymmetric. The first sentence spans a common 8 bars, divided equally in a presentation and continuation. The second sentence preserves the 4-bars presentation (expected to signal the formal structure to the listener), but greatly expands the continuation to 13 bars before arriving at the full cadence, and then further adds a 9 bars cadential prolongation serving as a coda, leading to a total sentence length of 26 bars.
The expansion of the second continuation is where the harmony is the most interesting. While the antecedent follows a common I – II – V/V – V structure where all chords appear in stable and expected inversions, the middle section of the piece features exclusively chords in 1st or 2nd inversion, leading a great amount of harmonic instability. Combined with the tempo acceleration; the rhythmic complexification of changing the sextuplets to quintuplets in bars 18-20; and the increased surface dissonance through the usage of increasingly chromatic appogiaturas, this contributes greatly to the sense of movement created in the middle.
When you observe the relationship of the outer parts in this section, you can further notice that from bar 12 to bar 21, they move exclusively in parallel 6ths. Chained parallel 6th chords are often of an ornamental nature, due to the lack of stability that a root can provide. Here, I decided to mostly analyze them as functional on the foreground because of the internal voice leading which was not always parallel, except for the 18-20 section: the VI 6/5 here is really of a passing nature between two inversions of the V. Also, while the outer voices are moving in parallel, the movement is not entirely linear, with a small repetition around IV bars 14-17 – a detail which helps grant harmonic reality to the sub-dominant chord, also tonicized through the usage of a secondary V/IV dominant. Still, if we move to a background outline of the piece and push the whole parallel 6ths section to the ornamental domain, the structural connection between the two continuations becomes clear. Both do a II – V movement, but where the soprano in the first one is descending a third from D to B, the second one simply inverts the motion upwards, filling the gap with a scale, before adding a short cadential formula:
A tonic pedal at the end balances the instability created in the middle, with echoes of the cadential V – I movement on top. Bars 29-32 further seem to suggest a IV – I plagal movement in the right hand, but as the left hand was playing a contradicting G simultaneously, I opted to treat them as appoggiaturas in the analysis, although the harmonic effect is still there. Notice also how the A-G melodic movement in those last bars completes the G-A movement of bars 25 and 27, which is left incomplete by the jump of all parts up and down – a broken melodic movement which creates some tension before the ending and implies a 2-part melodic structure, as shown in the harmonic reduction example.
So… the analysis adventure continues soon with the second Prelude.