Student Question

Which composer wrote music that juxtaposed unrelated harmony and chromatic progressions?

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This is a complex issue, and the answer depends on how broadly or, conversely, how specifically we define the juxtaposition of unrelated harmony and chromaticism. We'll use the broader approach and identify instances that fit this description in many different ways.

Throughout what is known as the common practice period (from 1700 to 1900), when composers wrote in a "tonal-harmonic" style (meaning their music was tonal, that is, written in a particular key), at intermittent points they would use jarring harmonic progressions and extreme chromaticism for emotional effect and to support the meaning of the text in religious music or in opera and song. Just a few examples of many from the Baroque and Classical periods:

  1. Bach: In the "Crucifixus" section of the Mass in B minor.
  2. Mozart: In the climactic scene of Don Giovanni.
  3. Haydn: In the opening section of The Creation.
  4. Beethoven: To some extent in all of his symphonies, especially in the development section of the first movement of No. 3 (the Eroica) and in No. 9.

The above are a mere handful of examples. In the Romantic period (1825–1900), chromaticism and unusual harmonic shifts came to be used even more frequently. We can continue to point out individual instances. In the second movement of Schubert's late B-flat Piano Sonata (D.960) there is a sudden progression to a distant key so striking it has sometimes been termed the "magic modulation." As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the two composers whose music most showed continuous chromaticism and harmonic progressions in which the basic sense of being in one tonality (key) was lost were Liszt and Wagner. See, especially, Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, and Liszt's B-minor Sonata and late piano works. These prefigured various techniques that became common in the modernist period, beginning around 1910.

In modernist, or avant-garde, twentieth-century music, composers no longer wrote tonally (in the tonal-harmonic style of the common-practice period). Thus music was no longer in a single tonality or key but could combine or superimpose multiple keys upon each other, as Charles Ives (see his The Unanswered Question ) and Igor Stravinsky (see his Petrushka and The Rite of Spring) did. This is called bitonality or polytonality. Even more radical was Arnold Schönberg, who developed a system called dodecaphony—also called twelve-tone music, serialism, or atonality—in which all notes of the chromatic scale are equal. Here the music is heavily and continuously chromatic and is not written in any key.

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