Harmony:
The Technique of Beauty and Pleasure in Music
by Michael H. Miller

 

 

As a result of decades of effective indoctrination, the contemporary musical establishment has successfully “established” a politically correct principle regarding harmonic-based music: we can listen to it, we can study it, we can play it, we can sing it, we can dance to it, we can spend a small fortune on training, concerts, and recordings of it.

But we mustn’t compose it.

No matter how deeply harmonic music touches our soul—Berlioz defined harmony in 1837 as “the craft of how to group sounds to make chords that are generally perceived as pleasant or beautiful, and the art of linking them in a logical sequence”1—we are told to regard this music as old-fashioned and obsolete. But if it was appropriate for Mozart to compose this type of music, why should it be wrong for us? Mozart could write in 1781: “Passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and... music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words, must never cease to be music.”2 Why do we cherish his music but cringe at accepting the philosophy that informed its style? How have we failed to recognize that the love of his music is the love of the standards and values that sustain its high quality?

It appears that, today, we are too intimidated by what has become the musical establishment of our own time to stand up and protest the truly grotesque and hideously disturbing sounds of modern music. Why? Because little is known (even among musicians) about the actual mechanics of lyrical musical composition and the many long years of study that are required to cultivate sophisticated compositional skills. In another revealing statement Mozart once confided, “People are mistaken if they think that my art has come easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has devoted so much effort in the study of composition as have I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not diligently, and often repeatedly, studied.”3

Thus we learn from a genius seemingly inspired by heaven that the ability to create beauty and pleasure in music—and to do it with class and taste—is not the ineffable gift of grace, mysteriously endowed on a select few, but the product of talent, discipline, and above all, the technical skills, especially harmony, which have provided composers prior to the twentieth century with the knowledge of the forms necessary to produce great masterpieces of sonic beauty. In direct opposition, the training of composers in the twentieth century is based on a repudiation of harmony and tradition, and that rejection in both theory and practice has perverted the beautiful sounds of music into something repulsive and unrecognizable. Understanding the roots of this transformation is the first step toward the restoration of classical music to its lofty position among the high arts. Indeed, a Renaissance of good taste in music must be preceded by a Renaissance of specialized training—the kind offered to composers when excellence and unapologized-for beauty characterized the goals of serious musical composition.

Standards and the Value of Rules

Prior to the twentieth century, devotion to “rules”—objectively-valid techniques—had always been the practice of the greatest composers. “To become a composer,” Beethoven advised, “one must first have studied harmony...during a period of from seven to eleven years, so as to accustom one’s self to bend the inventive faculty to the rules, whenever imagination and feeling shall awaken.”4

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), one of Beethoven’s teachers, reported, “I would sit down, and begin to improvise, whether my spirits were sad or happy, serious or playful. Once I had captured an idea, I strove with all my might to develop and sustain it in conformity with the rules of art.”5

It might be argued that Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven lived at a time when compliance with rules was expected, while later Romantic composers were presumably less inhibited by stylistic regulations. A question can also be raised regarding the content of these rules: did they always refer to the minutiae of academic harmony? Response to these points is best illustrated by two instances of popular, respected, and influential Romantic composers whose own music was rich with harmonic expressiveness, yet whose intellectual explications of the manifold laws of harmony were comprehensive and authoritative.

In the first case, music lovers familiar with the passionately romantic music of Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) might be surprised to learn that the composer of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture and Swan Lake was a professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, where he was known by his students for being a stickler about rules. Although it may seem incongruous to us, today, for such a pedant to have composed passionate and heart-wrenching music, the truth is that his technical expertise enabled him to enrich his famous melodies with gorgeous harmonies. In 1872, he wrote a detailed textbook based on a strict style of pedagogy entitled, Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony.

The next example is Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), a composer of some of the most enchanting and exotic classical music ever written, e.g., Sheherazade. He, also, was a professor of harmony, and like Tchaikovsky, he produced a textbook called, Practical Manual of Harmony; this book is so rule-bound one is tempted to convert its lessons into software for composing music. His views on music were equally mechanistic. When asked about the meaning of a particular chord, he replied, “I don’t know what it means; I just know it has three resolutions.” Nevertheless, his teaching methods influenced many of his students, some of whom became prominent composers of early twentieth-century music. Even Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), one of the last popular Romantic composers, was taught by students of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.

The prominence these textbooks achieved in the Russian educational system not only attests to the efforts of two musical giants devoted to promoting and disseminating the craft of their art, it also confirms the traditional dependency of the creative process in classical music on the acquisition and observance of rules of formal techniques. The rationale for having rules and standards in those days was based on the idea that some things in music are better than others, and what is “better” is knowable and should be learned. In 1862 Hector Berlioz, composer of the dazzling Symphonie Fantastique, incorporated this idea in his definition of music as “the art of combining sounds so as to touch the emotions of intelligent persons endowed with special, cultivated faculties.”6

The concept of standards includes more than the creation of pleasant sounds. It also embraces the idea that music has spiritual and moral components. In a letter from 1841 regarding the establishment of a new school of music, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the most respected and influential composer of his time, expressed his preference for the attainment of nobility in music:

The following principle must serve as a basis for the whole Institute: that every sphere of art can only elevate itself above a mere handicraft by being devoted to the expression of lofty thought, along with the utmost possible technical finish, and a pure and intellectual aim; that also solidity, precision, and strict discipline in teaching and learning should be considered the first law, thus not falling short in this respect of any handicraft; that in every department, all teaching and learning should be exclusively devoted to the thoughts intended to be expressed, and to that more elevated mood, to which technical perfection in art must ever be subordinate.7

This eloquently stated principle is based on the premise that music is first and foremost a craft. What makes it an art depends on the purpose for which the craft is engaged. In today’s “anything goes” atmosphere, the status of “art” is automatically conferred on new music without regard for craft, without an appreciation of the sublime.

The Crisis and Controversy of Atonality

Today, instead of learning the techniques of harmony, student composers—where they learn any compositional technique at all—study “twelve-tone” composition for the purpose of producing “atonal” music, or music without a tonal reference point, i.e., a chosen “key.” This system, developed by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), the most dominant influence on twentieth-century music, eradicated any vestigial remains of tonality in music by advocating the use of all twelve undifferentiated notes of the octave with equal frequency; no one tone could be used twice until all the other eleven were used once. In other words, his system completely nullified the advantages of having scales. His goal was the “emancipation of the dissonance.” In this system, there would be no recognition of consonance or dissonance in the traditional sense and no need for rules regarding the resolution of dissonances. Stravinsky agreed with Schoenberg when he said, “Dissonance is no longer a symbol of disorder, nor consonance a guarantee of security.” Consequently, although consonant chords are prohibited in this style because of their associations with tonality, we hear dissonances all the time in twelve-tone music. They sound repellent to our ears because they are not treated properly (not modified by consonance) and not placed in a context in which they can be resolved. To verify the aesthetic anarchy that this system has created we need only listen to Schoenberg’s music. There are no satisfying resolutions of dissonance, no elegant chains of consonantal chords, no dramatic modulations. The father of atonal music simply believed that his cacophony would someday be accessible to the public because people would get used to it as they became more familiar with it.

The heart of the tonality dispute centers precisely on the subject of musical rules. Are they based on nature or are they man-made? Tchaikovsky spoke for the former position when he wrote that rules existed for “satisfying the musical ear.”8 He showed how the laws of harmony can guide composers to write in conformity with our innate sense of aesthetic awareness. Today we might express this in terms of a biological or neurological predisposition. (In the late 1960’s, scientists conducted an experiment with rats that demonstrated even those animals’ preference for listening to the music of Mozart and Haydn rather than the music of Schoenberg!)

Most composers in the twentieth century hold the latter position, glorifying the perverse in music and denying the validity of our natural inclinations, saying that nothing is inherently universal about rules. If rules are culture-specific, they claim, Schoenberg’s music has validity and vitality no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, and our inability to appreciate it must be attributed to our ignorance and cultural provincialism.

The most popular argument in support of atonality, the “historic/inevitability” argument, claims that atonality necessarily followed a period when every possible harmonic combination had already been tried.

The obvious fallacy with this argument is that harmony is more than just the sound of chords; it also involves their connections. The number of possibilities for combining chords in different contexts is almost infinite. For example, the famous enigmatic chord in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde can also be found in Beethoven, but Beethoven used it merely as a passing chord, while Wagner conspicuously featured it to signify an important motif of the opera. Another fallacy with this argument is that harmony is not an end in itself but a means to an end, its purpose being the aesthetic, emotional and intellectual enjoyment of the listener. The goal of musical development should always be the creation of quality in music, not just the invention of new sounds. The number of ways this quality can be achieved is limited only by the skill, talent, and integrity of the composer.

J. S. Bach (1685-1750), regarded by many musicians for almost three centuries as the greatest of composers, wrote in a conservative style that was already “old-fashioned” in his own time, yet he enabled future composers to develop the potential of tempered tuning to an extraordinary degree through his monumental Das wohltemperierte Klavier, probably the most important piece of music ever written—When Mozart’s wife heard him play it, she asked why he could not compose like that. Robert Schumann compared the relationship of music to Bach with the relationship of a religion to its founder, and Wagner called Bach “the most stupendous miracle in all of music.” Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, and so many other brilliant composers studied Bach intensively as a major part of their musical training. Significantly, Bach produced no new sounds; instead, he composed with unsurpassed skill, infusing his music with a quality that served future generations of composers and teachers as the supreme model of excellence.

What vanished in the twentieth century was not the capacity of harmony to create new chords. What has disappeared—disavowed by twentieth-century theorists—are the skills, knowledge, and confidence that have sustained and inspired composers for centuries to exploit the available harmonic resources available to all composers of all time.

The Demise of Harmonic Education

Today, expertise is completely lacking in the traditional understanding of harmony. The pursuit of a Ph.D. in Music Theory (the “literary criticism” of music) does not require such knowledge, and graduate students are barely exposed to its authentic teachings at all. What passes for harmony in the modern music curriculum is a corrupted, revised and watered-down travesty of what used to be a powerful tool in the composer’s workshop. Students who take these courses are invariably bewildered by what they learn; even the textbooks that effectively served to train composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are virtually unavailable today. Music Theory is now presented not as training for composition nor as a search for authenticity in understanding a composer’s intentions but as an exercise for its own sake, creating pseudo-sophisticated systems of analysis based on whatever theory is currently in vogue.

Because it is not fashionable to value the intentions of composers, “scholars” are no longer fluent in the prescriptive musical language once used. “Prescriptive” implies standards, standards imply discrimination, and both conspire against the unqualified acceptance of modern music. “Prescriptive” also means that teachers can be evaluated according to the degree of their own mastery of the rules of harmony. The easier-to-use descriptive analysis, being non-judgmental, is therefore more popular in universities.

Music Theory has become blind to the true spirit of music. Gone is the respect for the rules of craft that guided the great composers of the past. Also gone is the sensitivity to the emotional issues that were so important to those composers—specifically, how those concerns were translated into musical notes and through those notes conveyed to the musically-sensitive listener. The most important element missing from modern musical analysis is the exploration of those technical procedures which enabled composers to achieve a sense of beauty, pleasure, and sensuality in their music.

The correlation between the sad state of music theory and the poor quality of contemporary musical composition is no accident. All composers still dream of being regarded someday as a second Beethoven, but they are being misled about what actually made that great composer great. Current musical thinking emphasizes how he broke with tradition rather than how he learned from it, yet Beethoven himself wrote in 1809:

There is hardly any treatise which would be too learned for me. I have not the slightest pretension to what is properly called erudition. Yet from my childhood, I have striven to understand the intentions of the better and wiser people of every age. Shame on an artist who does not consider it his duty to achieve at least as much.9

What, in fact, made Beethoven great was the superb quality of his music, praised by generations of discriminating and well-trained musicians. No modern composer of atonal music ever achieved such erudition, but well-entrenched interest groups who dominate the musical establishment refuse to admit that entire careers are built on a bankrupt idea that will never gain acceptance with the musical public. Using the recording industry as an objective criterion for evidence of a composer’s popularity—today!—we have only to compare the total number of different recordings made for each of the two contrasting groups of composers: the academically-endorsed Second Viennese School (Schoenberg and his star pupils, Berg and Webern) versus the Viennese classicists (Haydn and his famous students, Beethoven and Mozart). The contrast is startling: the Muze computer program, which contains a list of all available recordings on CD’s, currently shows about 800 different recordings for the three modern composers of the Second Viennese School. For the three Viennese classicists, it lists about 24,000!

So, in reality, which style is better suited to speak to our age? Or, perhaps, to any age? Even without technical expertise, it should be obvious to all but the most brainwashed that after a century of failure, Schoenberg’s system can never compete with the natural superiority of the harmonic system. It follows that we ought to become reacquainted with the philosophical foundations of the music we enjoy so much in order to free ourselves from the inhibitions that stifle our creative activity. At this time not only do influential advocates of modern music continue to perpetuate the exclusive study of modernist composition in schools, they also persist in imposing their unpopular artistic philosophy on the public in defiance of its wishes. This myopic and oppressive ideology requires a new “sound” for new music, no matter how offensive, vulgar, shallow, or pretentious—the very qualities that objective standards would have forestalled. In the words of Virgil Thompson in 1954:

Explaining the public to the artist is management’s business and that of older artists. Defending the public against the artist is nobody’s business, not the impresario’s, nor the politician’s, nor the clergy’s, still less than that of the critic, whose living depends on the survival of the art he speaks for.10

How different is this public-be-damned philosophy from the ideals of the past. Haydn wrote to the musical community of Bergen on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen in response to a letter thanking him for The Creation, which they had just performed there for the first time:

Often, when contending with obstacles of every sort... a secret feeling within me whispered: “There are but few contented and happy men here below; everywhere grief and care prevail; perhaps your labors may one day be the source from which the weary and worn, or the man burdened with affairs may derive a few moments’ rest and refreshment.” What a powerful motive for pressing onward!11

The role of music should be to please the listener, and harmony does just that; it is the sonic “beauty” that sweetens the path to the more complex tastes of the art of music. Josef Rheinberger (Richard Strauss’ instructor) taught that harmony was “nine tenths of the whole art.”12 Unfortunately, its sublime potential for creating glorious beauty, evoking passions and providing refined pleasure—not to mention satisfying our need for emotional inspiration!—is considered inappropriate for contemporary musical expression. Worse, students with a taste for those characteristics cannot find music schools or conservatories to help them develop their talents for composing truly moving music.

Our cherished repertoire can grow richer, but only if we recognize the importance of returning to the thinking of the composers we admire from the past. Perhaps one future day, when the full range of the techniques of harmony are restored to the classroom, talented students can begin again to compose music that will thrill us all, anew.

Footnotes
1) Hector Berlioz, The Art of Music and Other Essays, 1994.
2) John Amis & Michael Rose, Words About Music, 1989.
3) Mozart Speaks, 1991.
4) Vincent D’Indy, Beethoven.
5) John Amis & Michael Rose, Words About Music, 1989.
6) Hector Berlioz, The Art of Music and Other Essays.
7) Mendelssohn Letters.
8) Peter Tchaikovsky, Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony.
9) Warren Kirkendale, Fugue and Fugato in Rococo and Classical Chamber Music, 1979.
10) Henry Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music, 1955.
11) H.E. Parkhurst, A Complete System of Harmony, 1905.

Michael Miller, a former professional violinist, attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music and is a graduate of Temple University School of Music. He is now working on a book that will explicate the compositional techniques of great Romantic composers.

Copyright © ART Ideas. All rights reserved.