03 June 2013

Fabulous Fifths

The Rules of Harmony were, I should imagine, drawn up by an Englishman.  It seems a pretty safe bet to say that; after all it is very much an English habit to codify and organise that which, almost by definition, defies organisation.  Having spent many miserable years learning about the “correct” way to write out ornaments – eight notes, beginning on the upper auxiliary for a trill, five notes (the note, the note above, the note, the note below, the note) for a turn, and so on – the correct grouping of semiquavers to a beat in various simple and compound time-signatures, and building up an absolute horror of consecutive fifths or chords without thirds, I, like so many music students, came to despise the absolute unyielding rigidity of these basic building blocks of composition and marvelled at the way composers seemed to have taken them in their stride.  If I did happen to point out an awful solecism in Bach (he was quite fond of the odd consecutive fifth or two) or Haydn (his note groupings would not have got him a distinction in grade 5 theory) I was told that it was a sign of “greatness” that you had the confidence to “break the rules”.  Indeed, there’s a frightful English epithet which runs, “Rules are Made to be Broken”; which seems about the most ridiculous thing anyone could say; if they are made for that, then why make them in the first place?

As a student it always puzzled me that these Rules of Harmony were so explicit.  Did, I wonder, every composer sit down with the list of rules itemised on a laminated sheet of paper beside his desk (as music examiners do with their own Rules – the list of criteria they must follow in assessing every exam candidate)?   Surely such things served only to stifle creativity.  But, being English, I was faced with the inbuilt obligation to obey every rule without question (is this why I enjoy living in Singapore so much?) and so I kept such reservations to myself.
Of course it’s all nonsense.  I know that now.  The only “rules” any composer has ever followed are those of their own making and those dictated by the simple rules of physics; you can’t ask a violin to play a melody below its range, nor expect a soprano to reach down to the F below middle C.  But even then, there have been those composers who have stretched the rules by asking violins to retune and sopranos to experiment with vocal inflexions to simulate low notes. 

Ornaments, that great bugbear of grade five theory students and those obsessed with authentic performance of Baroque music, are simply what they say they are; decorations to a musical line which by their very definition are purely improvisatory.  As I tell my students, if a composer really did want eight notes of equal value beginning on the upper auxiliary, he would, have written them - practicality, context, taste and an intelligent understanding of stylistic conventions dictate how ornaments work out in performance; not sterile rules.  And as for consecutives fifths and octaves and chords without thirds, these account for some of the more tantalising elements in some of the greatest of compositions.
So what purpose do these Rules of Harmony serve, other than to fill teachers’ pockets with cash from poor students determined to sit a pointless exam covering an aspect of musical literacy which has no relevance whatsoever to real musical life?  As I wrote in this blog some years back, the Trinity theory syllabus managed to change the face of that and while their exams do necessitate the understanding of and adherence to a few sets of rules, the key words are context and musicality, and the grinding boredom of page after page of worked out ornaments and four-part harmony along pre-determined lines, are (almost) gone.  I love the new Trinity theory syllabus and wish it had been around when I was a student.  Then only problem is, without the clear and unequivocal set of rules so ingrained into previous (and other existing) theory syllabuses, a lot of teachers have great difficulty adjusting.

Following a Malaysia-wide tour some years back introducing teachers to the Trinity theory syllabus, I received a small but steady stream of queries from those who still could not grasp how to teach certain concepts when the rules seemed so vague.  And, indeed, a question has just come in from a teacher who has summoned up the courage to take the bull by the horns and start teaching the new syllabus. 
She writes; “I have tried to work out how to do the 12-bar Blues exercise, but I always end up with consecutive fifths AND octaves.  What can I do?”

Since the entire basis of western musical harmony is built around consecutive fifths and octaves – it was the French who first described this natural inclination of untrained voices to sing in fifths and octaves when unable to sing in unison as “Organum” – to forbid them is like instructing a human being to remove all their bones.  They are absolutely vital, but as civilisation progresses the urge has been to cover them up as much as possible (although a look at some of the cadaverous creatures tottering along catwalks makes me wonder whether civilisation has missed the fashion industry by).  It was in the 18th century that this desire to “civilise” harmony reached its apogee and composers strove to disguise the essential roots of harmony by wrapping them up in pretty chords and cleverly contrived harmonic progressions.  Since then, of course, the move has been the other way, and with jazz, minimalism and many more recent musical genres, primitivism is the order of the day.  Since the 12-bar Blues is a jazz idiom, we should see it as a celebration of consecutive fifths, not an illegal exposure of them.
Musical theory attempts to demonstrate how various composers have created their unique stylistic fingerprints by analysing and codifying their music into a set of “dos and do nots”.  So we learn that Bach tended to avoid voice parts moving together in parallel fifths and octaves while Haydn generally conceived harmony triadically – with every chord containing a third.  Somewhere along the line, however, those useful “dos and do nots” became the Rules of Harmony and people forgot their purpose and context, projecting them on to all harmony of any vintage.

My father started me off on the organ playing some pieces from Flor Peeters’ Heures Intimes, a collection of pieces I now realise were, like just about everything else Peeters wrote, a thinly-disguised attempt to Flemishise – I’ve spent time in the USA so I know how to use words like that – the music of his French contemporaries (in this case Vierne’s Pièces en style libre).  When I took these to my first organ teacher, he shuddered with horror; “What a terrible piece.  It’s all consecutive fifths” he proclaimed in a disgusted voice.  Like the Vierne Berceuse on which it is modelled, Peeters’ Lied derives its sublime beauty from the constant flow of moving parallel fifths.  Yet the Rules of Harmony had told my organ teacher that it was wrong.  Nobody had told him (as nobody ever told me) that the Rules of Harmony were not only period-specific, but utterly artificial.
So in response to my worried teacher, I must tell her that she has to forget all about those Rules when she is working through her theory syllabus, and apply them only – and even then with strict health warnings - should she have to harmonise a “chorale in the style of Bach” or a “string quartet in the style of Haydn”.  In all other contexts fifths, octaves and bare chords are not only allowed, but should be positively encouraged.  We English love out consecutive fifths; where would Vaughan Williams have been without them!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I'm studying the Vierne Berceuse now, and I find it very fascinating, only just slightly taxing on my tiny hands. ;) I love how there are many open 5ths and some 4ths, but they're stacked in such a way that they don't sound bare. I hear a lot of sophisticated 7th chords that remind me of jazz. I'm also fascinated by the chords that facilitate modulations that I don't quite understand.

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