What familiarity breeds: Anomalies of harmonic practice in the music of Rachmaninoff
MetadataShow full item record
Rachmaninoff's music is generally thought of as harmonically conservative, as he steadfastly resisted the more advanced languages of the early twentieth century and continued to write unabashedly tonal music--not just until he left Russia in 1917, but through to the end of his life. Nonetheless, the harmonic language developed by Rachmaninoff turns out to be based on a complex chromaticism, which is often difficult to analyze in detail--witness the very small number of scholarly analyses of his music. The present study develops a strategy for characterizing this complex chromatic language--by carefully considering surface details and deriving them from alterations or elaborations of harmonic configurations common in more straightforward tonal music. The Rachmaninoff passage turns out to be difficult because it is the result of several different elaborative processes interacting simultaneously. Once these are unraveled, however, the particulars of the surface-level harmony become much more readily comprehensible, since they are revealed to be based on the same kind of harmonic-contrapuntal patterns that govern all tonal music--given special, even unique twists, which produce Rachmaninoff's distinctive (if difficult) chords. This study builds on three fundamentals: Smith's work on chromatic dominant chords, harmonic sequences and omnibus progressions. It then explores three additional kinds of harmonic configurations in detail: sequences, contrary-motion (or omnibus-related) progressions, and passages based on contextual redefinition. After consideration of the conventional versions presumed to be models well known to composers prior to Rachmaninoff, these configurations are illustrated by excerpts from Rachmaninoff's pre-1917 music. The principal analytical difficulty in dealing with sequences is reconciling musical surfaces with their underlying harmony. In several cases, the surface sounds sequential but the underlying harmony is far from regular--often resulting from the combination of and interaction between different types of sequential (or even non-sequential) progressions. In other cases, the underlying sequential harmony is stripped of many of its components, leaving only the essential features of a harmonic model. Contrary-motion progressions are often related to the well-known omnibus configuration, but Rachmaninoff invented a wide variety of unique contrary-motion configurations, typically based on embellishments of familiar linear patterns, especially those involving voice-exchanges. A further complication is recursive embellishment, in which one contrary-motion configuration is used to elaborate another larger-scale configuration. Finally, certain harmonic progressions in Rachmaninoff are best understood to result from contextual redefinition--in that they seem to make functional sense in a specific key, but are redefined by the musical context into functional components of a progression in a different key. Two examples (among many possibilities) are considered here: v [straight phi] 7 to I (which looks on paper like ii [straight phi] 7 to V in the key of the subdominant), and #IV 7 to I (which looks like [musical flat]II [musical flat]7 to V, also in the key of the subdominant). In each case, there are at least two important questions: (1) how the key of contextual redefinition is articulated, in the face of chordal affiliations with a different key; and (2) whether these chords can ever be said to acquire a distinctive functional identity in the key into which they have been contextually redefined. If they do, the result is an expansion of the repertoire of functional relationships--specifically by incorporating new types of harmonic progressions.