Harmony and Autonomous Form – The Boston Musical Intelligencer


Colleges and conservatories may still offer courses on harmony (unlike counterpoint), or more likely on “theory” – but music students are lucky everywhere if they get more than a year. full of written “theory” of any kind, and harmony could be part of that. I had two full years of Harmony at university and have made a career studying it since; yet when, in 1978, I revised Walter Piston’s classic textbook, Harmony, after his death, my friend Arthur Komar, a theorist of Schenker (he wrote a short and crystalline book, Suspension theory), asked me: “Why beat a dead horse? Okay, there are a few reasons. What I am proposing here is that harmony involves specific entities, which can actually exist as musical quantities and not just abstract concepts.

The beloved of Claude Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a particularly illustrative example of “progressive tone”, which I have already spoken about (November 27, 2020). Wildlife, in three formal sections, as Debussy so often preferred, has a palpable tonal structure tightly organized around a single class of pitches, C sharp, and its various harmonic manifestations. The melodic line of the upper voice guides everything, with Art Nouveau sinuosity, from start to finish, almost entirely in the woods and extending barely below middle C. Everyone remembers the solo flute, starting in C sharp, descending to G and returning, twice, then ending with the notes of an E major triad:

The two keys, C sharp minor and E major, are implicit in the paradigm – relative minor and major, with the same key signature. This famous flute melody reappears, varied, as a framing device throughout the first and third sections of the entire work.

At M. 11, it appears with C sharp the seventh above a triad in D major, already tonally distant from C sharp or E. In m. 21, C sharp is a sixth added above the E major triad, which relates to m. 3; this harmony is further diluted to m. 26, where the supporting harmony for C sharp is a major ninth above the E major triad (call C sharp a 13e above low E, if you wish). At M. 31 the melody of the flute is so varied that it no longer even evaluates the flute; it appears on the clarinet, starting with G, with C sharp on bass – the reverse of m. 1-2. By mr. 37 the flute melody and the gravitating C sharp have entirely disappeared.

The central section of the work is a strong D flat major, with an entirely new melody that only loosely clings to this D flat / C sharp. The only trace of the flute’s melody is its phantom, which can be found in the bass at mm. 55-58, D flat in G and back. A dynamic climax, the only one ff in the room (Always lively), arrives at m. 70 and gradually subsides.

The third section of Wildlife starts at m. 79 and marks the return of the flute melody (Movt. from the start) starting not on C sharp but on E – and one of the many geniuses of this work is the appearance of C sharp on bass (under a triad of E major) in m. 81. To m. 86 this passage is repeated in the far distant E flat major – so far, indeed, that the melody is given on the oboe, not on the flute. In the final utterance of the flute melody (m. 100-101, doubled by a solo cello), C sharp is harmonized for the first (and only) time by a true C sharp chord; but the seventh (B) is added to the chord, and the fifth (G sharp), not the root (C sharp), is in the bass – an exquisite attenuation of Faun’s memory, almost but not quite, of this blessed afternoon. The last four bars of the piece give a faint trace of the opening melody, but in E major, with muted horns and violins. C sharp alternates with E and dissolves into the work’s final harmony, a narrow-spaced E major triad. The penultimate is a C sharp minor triad based on the sharp (m. 109), identical in pitch classes with the first chord tone we heard (m. 4).


It is the harmonic structure that makes the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun a unique and autonomous form. Debussy had little use for sonatas, fugues, scherzos, variations and all academic stuff; he created his own individual structures. And it is the harmony that keeps them as rigorously refined as a Beethoven allegro or even the Tristan Prelude. (If you don’t fully believe in this slightly technical impetus, play the exx. On the piano, then listen to a record, score in hand, and it will become clearer.)

Note: The examples come from a 1959 recording by the Orchester National de France.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy and other composers of the early 20th century. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on numerous musical subjects and edited the fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) revised editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


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