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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

All such effects pale, however, before the extraordinary maneuvers of op. 17, no. 4, one of Chopin's most haunting fragments, in which denatured and strangely tinctured reminiscences of the mazurka seem to hover in a kind of harmonic ether. The characteristic accompaniment pattern of the “authentic” mazurka, the steady oompah-pah against which the shifting melodic accents rebound, prominent in the first two mazurkas and only slightly attenuated in the third, is now almost altogether gone, replaced by a mid-register pulsation marked sotto voce (“in an undertone”—see Ex. 7-7a).

Harmonic Dissolution

ex. 7-7a Frédéric Chopin, Mazurka, Op. 17, no. 4, mm. 1–20

Harmonic Dissolution

ex. 7-7b Frédéric Chopin, Mazurka, Op. 17, no. 4, end

The repeated harmonic progression in Ex.7-7a is a variant of the Chopinesque suspension chain we encountered in Ex. 7-3, even closer this time to the ancient passus duriusculus ground bass, cadencing alternately on V and on I. The grafting of this basso ostinato to a melody voice full of mazurka rhythms is already a fantastic amalgam, made stranger still by the admixture of Italianate fioritura (most closely associated, at the keyboard, with the nocturne) on melodic repetitions (as in m. 15).

But for the romantic sense of evocative incompletion at fullest strength, nothing can compare with the ending of this mazurka (Ex. 7-7b). The idea is simplicity itself: a closing repetition of the mazurka's first four bars, which in their harmonic open-endedness had made an effective preface (or “prelude”) to the dance. In a postlude, the same open-endedness is uncanny. Ending on an F major (or, perhaps more to the point, a tonic triad with an appoggiatura to its fifth left unresolved) gives a sense that the piece has not ended but merely passed out of earshot (as the notation perdendosi, “getting lost,” corroborates). Nothing can follow such an ending without spoiling its special mood of enchantment. To do it justice, silence must palpably hang in the air—a silence that seems to throb with unheard music. Not for nothing, then, did Chopin choose to end the set with this mazurka, even if the four pieces were not necessarily meant to form a concert sequence.

There is a huge difference between the fragmentary quality of Schumann's Phantasie, which begins in medias res but comes to a definite close, and the far more disquieting sense of incompletion Chopin achieves in the A-minor mazurka. The closest Schumann came to it was in “Child Falling Asleep” (Kind im Einschlummern), the next-to-last of his Kinderscenen (“Scenes of childhood”), op. 15, a programmatic piece in which the implied narrative—the child nodding off before the end is reached—explains and justifies the effect. Even so, Schumann continued a circle of fifths from the end of “Child Falling Asleep” into the beginning of the last piece in the set, “The Poet Speaks” (Der Dichter spricht), so that the harmony at the end of the first piece does find resolution of sorts in the other, albeit in a different key (Ex. 7-8).

Harmonic DissolutionHarmonic Dissolution

ex. 7-8 Robert Schumann, Kinderscenen, end of no. 12 and beginning of no. 13

More direct echo or emulation of Chopin's uncompleted fragment can be found in composers of the next generation. Stephen Heller (1813–88), a Hungarian-born pianist composer who made his home, like Chopin, in Paris, was only three years Chopin's junior, but he had barely achieved notice by the time of the Polish composer's death, and then only as a composer of technical studies. His more important works mainly belong to later decades. First among them was a set of character pieces with the emblematically romantic title Spaziergänge eines Einsamen (“Solitary rambles”), published in 1851. The last item, a harried vivace, ends the cycle with an unresolved diminished-seventh chord, the equivalent of ending a letter or a story or—most typically—a lyric poem with an ellipsis (“…”). Except for the startling effect at the end (startling that is, in retrospect, when one realizes that it was the end), the piece is fairly innocuous, and so were the many popular stories and poems that abused the device of ellipsis, turning it eventually into a cliché (Ex. 7-9).

Harmonic Dissolution

ex. 7-9 Stephen Heller, Spaziergänge eines Einsamen, Op. 78, end of no. 6

Liszt was among the abusers. He wrote a whole series of Valses oubliées (Forgotten waltzes) that popularized the effect of “dissolved” tonality as a representation of hazy memory (“balls of youth recalled in old age…”), and even an experimental “Bagatelle in No Key” (Bagatelle ohne Tonart), composed in 1885, the last full year of Liszt's life, but unpublished until 1956 (Ex. 7-10). The touted suspension of tonality is the result of a series of unusual deceptive cadences whereby dominant-seventh chords are converted into diminished sevenths, one of which is allowed, as in Heller's piece, to finish the piece, if not conclude it.

Harmonic Dissolution

ex. 7-10 Franz Liszt, Bagatelle ohne Tonart, mm. 169–end

The interesting question such pieces raise—one that was on many minds in 1956 when Liszt's bagatelle was published amid considerable publicity—is whether such devices, which may be said to have originated with Chopin, necessarily weaken the structural role of tonality. The answer, pretty clearly, is that they do not, any more than the rhetorical use of ellipsis, or of incorrect or nonstandard grammar in literature, weakens the everyday efficacy of grammar. To end a piece with an unresolved appoggiatura, or more radically with a diminished-seventh chord, honors the requirement of tonal closure in the breach rather the observance, but honor is in any case paid. If anything, frustration heightens the sense of expectation.

There is not the slightest doubt as to the expected conclusion in Chopin's mazurka or Heller's “Ramble.” Not even in Liszt's bagatelle can there be any real debate as to the identity of the harmonic goal that has been rhetorically left unreached; the last functional chord being a clear dominant of A minor, that is clearly the key avoided. There is no ambiguity, and surely no tonal incoherence. The startling effect of arbitrary rupture is entirely a matter of rhetoric rather than structure. The object of the rhetoric is the affirmation precisely of the right to be arbitrary, to please oneself: in a word, the time-honored romantic right to subjectivity.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007007.xml