Various Historical Influences

Sorry for not posting last week. I was dealing with things and avoiding anxiety attacks by not doing research.

This week, I tried to catch up on some of my historical readings. Let’s go chronologically:

I read two perspectives on 18th century theory, mostly pertaining to Thoroughbass traditions, tho there was some mention of Rameau. Joel Lester’s book (Compositional Theory in the 18th Century) has much to say on many topics, but I was interested in how, although Thoroughbass isn’t precisely a theory, it helps to explain one of the first definitions of tonality, thru the Rule of the Octave. [The Rule of the Octave is the idea that continuo players could realize a figured bass without the help of the figures (if the publisher/composer had been lazy) by knowing what the key was, because each step of the scale had a most likely chord.] Various theorists had different takes on this concept, but is one of the very first instances of functional, harmonic thinking. Thoroughbass traditions highlight/mark the turning of composition/theory from predominantly linear, tenor-based contrapuntal standards to bass-line oriented harmonic, functional approaches. However, Thoroughbass traditions are entirely bass-oriented, and do not always have a solid conception of chord roots.

The other article on this topic that I read this week (Holtmeier, Ludwig. “Heinichen, Rameau, and the Italian Thoroughbass Tradition: Concepts of Tonality and Chord in the Rule of the Octave.” Journal of Music Theory 51:1 Spring 2007. 5-49.) takes issue with the fact that many theorists don’t believe Thoroughbass manuals to be Theory [Harmonielehre in the 19th Cent. German sense]. The author instead argues that the Rule of the Octave constitutes a Theory of Harmony because it codifies tonality for the first time. Heinichen’s 1728 Thoroughbass manual is advanced as a candidate for a counterproposal to Rameau’s 1722 treatise. The bass and scale focus of Thoroughbass means that Heinichen’s ideas are more linear than Rameau’s (who privileges leaps). I also liked this comment: “For Heinichen, the functional meaning of a chord is not determined by the principle of third-stacking.” because one of the changes I have in FA from traditional RNs is to not be constricted by third-stacking. From the article’s conclusion:  “One might consider it a deficit that the tradition of Italian thoroughbass does not offer a comprehensive and straightforward systematics, but perhaps this is precisely where its true strength lies: that it does not seek to deduce harmony and melody, line and sonority, chord and counterpoint from a single coherent principle, as Rameau does, but permanently works through the tension between those poles in a dialectical way.” I think it is entirely desirable to be able to balance horizontal and vertical concerns.

This week I also went back thru my English translation of Riemann’s Vereinfachte Harmonielehre. Riemann can be a bit difficult to read, in English or in German, but it was good to go back and remember the sequence in which he teaches things. One of the background ideas of the treatise: “I. There are only two kinds of clangs; overclangs and underclangs [major and minor triads]; all dissonant chords are to be conceived, explained, and indicated as modifications of overclangs and underclangs. II. There are only three kinds of tonal functions (significance within the key), namely, tonic, dominant, and subdominant. In the change of these functions lies the essence of modulation.”

I also recently re-read some of Schenker’s Harmony in English translation. There are plenty of nice references referring to triads/RNs in a very functional manner, and I do use prolongational ideas constantly in FA. Schenker also talks quite a bit about tones desiring to go places and these melodic functions are part of the basis of harmonic functions, and will help form the basis of extensions to FA.

I find it interesting that this week I read about how Thoroughbass, the bastion and originator of the figured bass symbols whose current implementation I disagree with most, is also in support of functional tonality. Maybe I’m reading history with a bias, but it seems like everyone is trying to do the same thing with different vocabulary, systems, or approaches: make sense of music. I continue to strive to provide a flexible, useful way to understand music better.


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