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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter H

Letter H
Harmonic language

Between 1910 and 1913, Stravinsky's harmonic language changed beyond recognition. His main works from this short period, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, sound so different from each other that we could easily imagine they had been written by three different composers. The Firebird is certainly a fresh and exciting score, but it clearly builds on the inventions of Stravinsky's teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. The older composer loved playing with symmetrical patterns of chords - chains of triads, for example, separated by the interval of a major or minor third. Such symmetrical patterns sounded strange and otherworldly, perfect for the depiction of the fantastic in Rimsky-Korsakov's operas. In The Firebird, Stravinsky used similar principles for the evil sorcerer Kashchei and his kingdom.

If The Firebird is the consummation of all that Stravinsky had already learnt, Petrushka is his first major expedition into uncharted territory. Here we find more daring harmonic effects, the most famous of them the "Petrushka chord" - a dissonant combination of a C-major and F-sharp-major triad. This striking dissonance may have been the perfect musical correlate for Petrushka's broken heart, but even in the more emotionally neutral scenes at the fair, Stravinsky found many opportunities to combine, overlap, and superimpose things that had never sounded together before in all the history of music. In a way, the result is realistic: Stravinsky dared to capture the cacophony of the street or the fairground, even though they had always been there to hear.

But the greatest leap forward came with The Rite of Spring. The opening presents us with the sweet cacophony of awakening nature, a dawn chorus that could perhaps be regarded as an extension of passages in Petrushka, but the music that follows could never have been predicted from the earlier score. Stravinsky superimposes an E-flat dominant-seventh chord on an E-major triad, choosing the combination for its harsh ugliness, then he repeats it endlessly, until the dissonance begins to sound strangely normal, and our attention shifts to the unsettling rhythmic tricks Stravinsky is playing. This masterstroke sets new harmonic rules for the rest of the score. Another favourite device of the Rite is to take a perfectly benign, hummable, folkish melody and then double it in screeching tritones or major sevenths instead of the usual mellifluous thirds and sixths. In fact Stravinsky invents so many new harmonic devices that volumes have been written about the harmony of the Rite and new methods of analysis have been developed just to accommodate its wayward atonality.

Perhaps if Stravinsky had the mentality of a Schoenberg he could have found a way forward after The Rite. But instead, finding himself unable to surpass the wayward brilliance of his masterpiece, he moved towards a clarification and systematization of his harmony on the basis of octatonicism, the use of symmetrical 8-note scales constructed from alternating tones and semitones (an invention generally credited to Rimsky-Korsakov). Now Stravinsky could take a snatch of diatonic melody in his great work of the War years, Les Noces, and make it sound strangely alien by harmonizing it octatonically. Such devices make Les Noces a fascinating work, but one of consolidation and stock-taking, rather than a further bold leap into the unknown.

With the advent of neoclassicism after the War, Stravinsky opened the door again to the tonal harmonies that he had previously overthrown, and once again plain major and minor triads could be heard in his music. Even the most clichéd material was welcome - but it was there to have fun with, not as a reactionary celebration of "heritage". Even this apparent return of tonality was not quite what it seemed - from moment to moment, at the most superficial level, the sounds of conventional tonality were undoubtedly there, but the whole system of chord relations and chord functions was so attenuated that it often disappeared altogether. Stravinsky's neoclassical tonality was a knowing and deliberate counterfeit, not a loving recreation of the past - but for all that, a very enjoyable and engaging counterfeit.

In the last two decades of his life, Stravinsky dropped his neoclassicism in favour of the very thing he had been avoiding for so many years, namely Schoenberg's twelve-tone, or serial system, based on ordered sequences of all 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Stravinsky, like his great contemporary Picasso, had now tried everything - tonality, artificial modes, free atonality, mock tonality and finally serialism - and yet, like Picasso, he miraculously succeeds in maintaining his own identity through every stylistic change.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

Read other people's comments

Norman Shulman from Glasgow
Both Stravinsky and Scriabin are remarkable in that (as far as I am aware) no other composer's style had changed so radically through their musical career. This is especially so with Scriabin who died young aged 43 years. Scriabin's music is so uniquely characteristic. It's sad that his music is so rarely broadcast in Radio 3. Why not have a Scriabin Week?

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