November 17, 2004

More Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

Our pal Lynn over at Reflections in D Minor has been musing on the subject of musical dissonance here and here. Her posts prompted a very basic but comprehensive definition of the term over at Byzantium's Shores. By all means, go on over and read it.

I agree with the Byzantine's analysis. I also happen to think the true beauty of dissonance in music lies in the power of its resolution, its movement from tension to unification, from apparent discord to harmony.

As I have ranted many times before, much of post-19th Century music has jettisoned many of the older rules and forms of harmony. In the modern, free-flowing context (warning: gross generalization approaching), I believe dissonance actually loses much of its emotive power in part because there is no longer any generally-accepted framework of rules to be violated and also in part because it is far less likely that the dissonance will even be resolved. Swathes or dashes of dissonance placed within a piece for "color" don't really mean anything where they don't actually tie back to the structure of the piece in a harmonic way, providing an energy to push the passage towards a satisfying emotional climax. (Remember what I was saying a few days back about the delicious tension of pushing the edge of social conventions while respecting them, compared to the relative emptiness of being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want? It's the same sort of thing.)

Anyhoo, two specific thoughts on musical dissonance:

I will probably get flayed for this first one, but one thing that has always put me off Mozart's last two symphonies (No. 40 in G Minor and No. 41 in C Major (the "Jupiter")), are the passages of stark dissonance that he employes in their final movements. I don't know if Mozart was beginning to explore radical new lines of musical thought in these passages and shudder to think where he might have taken such thoughts had he lived longer. But I really think they are overblown, generating a grating sensation rather than one of anticipatory tension. Maybe that's what the Boy was after, but frankly, I don't like them.

One of my favorite Baroque composers is Henry Purcell. He was a master of chromatic dissonance. (Quick background: The movement from one note to the next in the standard eight note scale, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, is called a step. The movement from one of these notes up or down to its sharp or flat is called a half step. A chromatic scale -is one of half steps - C to C Sharp to D to D Sharp to E and so on.) It is a signature characteristic of much of Purcell's work that many passages contain combinations of chromatic movement up or down coupled with dissonant harmonies. Their resolution is, typically, exquisite. If you're looking for a good introduction to Purcell, may I suggest a collection of his Ayres for the Theatre performed by the Parley of Instruments under Peter Holman? I don't think you'd be disappointed.

Posted by Robert at November 17, 2004 11:52 AM | TrackBack
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