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JMR

One small chromatic step, one major color change

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Stephen,

Forgive me for starting another Rachmaninoff topic, but one of the dozen or so things that I absolutely love about his music is his sequencing of massive chords that don't move very far keyboard-wise yet convey stark shifts. The two obvious examples are at the intro to Piano Concerto No. 2 and at the very end of the Prelude in C# Minor. But he often does it in arpeggiated form as well (e.g. intro to Mvt 2 in Piano Concerto No. 2), and in the left-hand only in a few places in the 3rd Concerto.

Is there a name for this technique? Are there any other composers who use it extensively--or if not, perhaps a few individual works that stand out in your mind?

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This question cannot be easily answered without getting at least a bit technical, so I hope that readers with more general backgrounds will bear with me. For centuries, composers have sought to achieve harmonic interest while keeping their bass lines either static or in very limited motion. In the early Renaissance, the term “fauxbourdon” (false bass) was often used to describe a succession of inverted chords which were created by singers who simply improvised from a single line of music, i.e. they were trained to harmonize a monophonic line at sight by transposing it down by a selected series of intervals. The final product resembled a series of chords sounded in first or second inversion with a bass line that proceeded in stepwise motion, and at some point that sound became so characteristic of trained choirs that instrumental composers occasionally mimicked it. It was a sound well known to the Elizabethan virginalist (harpsichord) composers, and you can find traces of it in the keyboard works of William Byrd and others.

Through the Classical and into the Romantic periods, it was understood as an effect which tended to make instrumental textures seem lighter, i.e. the conscious avoidance of root position harmonies, often coupled with a largely stepwise bass motion. Schubert, for example, exploited this sound to great effect in the opening theme of his Fifth Symphony in B-flat: the theme begins at measure 5 harmonized with a tonic in root position, and in measure 7 we hear a dominant in root position, but that’s the last root position chord we hear till measure 19. All the intervening chords are in inversion and the bass lines are conjoined largely by step.

I had a professor in graduate school once who said that “the terminology you give to musical events should depend on what you actually hear” when the work is performed. In the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, every chord has a specific identity, and the chord roots could be analyzed as migrating by chromatic half step, but it’s still very difficult to “hear” the opening bars as anything but a series of F minor/F major chords. I think he wants the ear to hear F as the continuous root with accented non-harmonic tones until the arpeggiated pattern begins at bar 9. If this is the way it registers on the listener, then the D-flat against the C in the second bar creates a severe dissonance and its migration to a D natural in bar 3 creates a much sweeter 6th to enhance a minor chord. All of this must be understood against a deliberate backdrop of tonal ambiguity, since the ear hasn’t yet been given enough to establish a key—it could be any of a number of possibilities until you reach the G on beat 4 of measure 8. I think this increases the tension.

However, the arpeggiated effect you reference in the second movement of the Concerto is entirely different—this is something far more akin to the effect in Schubert’s fifth, except that the harmonies are richer. At bar 5 where the piano enters, the ear inevitably hears an E major chord in root position, but in the next bar he moves to an A major chord (the subdominant) in second inversion, which he modally alters into an A minor second-inversion just before beat 4. He then returns to a root position E chord to which he soon adds a seventh, resolving deceptively to an F-sharp major chord in bar 8. The E which is carried over in the pedal creates a secondary dominant of the dominant, i.e. the B major chord which is heard on beat 4, which resolves back into the E chord at bar 9. In other words, despite the fact that he provides an enormously long E pedal tone (it’s carried over—more or less—all the way to bar 20), the ear clearly hears a kaleidoscopic array of utterly distinct harmonies. It’s a textbook example of smooth voice leading and I don’t think there’s any way you can hear it as just 15 bars of so of E major chords slightly altered, despite the static bass part. He’s forcing the ear to hear a genuine harmonic progression.

I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to in the Third Concerto, but those types of effects are very rarely—if ever—created by the left hand alone. He nearly always scores the arpeggiated parts to be divided between the hands.

Stephen Siek

Wittenberg University

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