The Chromatic Fourth during Four Centuries of Music

The Chromatic Fourth during Four Centuries of Music

The Chromatic Fourth during Four Centuries of Music

The Chromatic Fourth during Four Centuries of Music

Synopsis

Despite its rather forbidding name, the `Chromatic Fourth' is one of the most familiar short themes in virtually all western music over the four hundred years before the middle of our century. It is a sequence of six notes that can be heard in a huge variety of ways, most originally, effectively, and beautifully in the work of the greatest composers, from the madrigalists to Stravinsky, from Byrd to Bart¿k, with telling examples in the operas of Monteverdi, Mozart, and Wagner, or in the keyboard music of Bull, Bach, and Schubert. Although the existence of the chromatic fourth has long been recognized, and occasionally mentioned by music historians, this is the first thorough-going attempt to trace its likely origins and its evolution over four hundred years. With over 200 music examples, Peter Williams demonstrates the theme's wonderful variety, and shows that it was used by composers not only as a means of emotional expression, but also as a structural device.

Excerpt

From his earliest work to his latest, Mozart left striking examples of the chromatic fourth, conventional in broad terms but inventive in harmony, melodic paraphrase, and Affekt.

Several early works provide typical examples and suggest some of the background influences on the young composer. the first minuetto of the Sonata in F major K13 has its melody coloured chromatically in Haydn's style, and is marked at this point by being slurred. the Kyrie of the early Mass K65 (1769), a work otherwise with few chromatics, follows precedent for sacred pieces in D minor by using the chromatic fourth for one phrase much in the manner of Michael Haydn, another Salzburger who too used isolated phrases for such texts. Neither composer newly harmonizes the motif; even an augmented sixth for the penultimate note is missing, such as one finds in contemporary harpsichord pieces by Jacques Duphly (1768--but see Ex. 6.4, bar 7, below.) in the case of the D minor Quartet K173 the young composer is following other admired models--this time Joseph Haydn's recent quartets Op. 20 (1772)--to write a finale in the form of a loose fugue based on an old subject (Ex. 6.1). This finale is a veritable chromatic fantasia, with diminution (as already in the exposition), syncopated countersubject, various stretti and commonproperty counterthemes; and, like some old fantasias, it includes moments of aimless tonality (Ex. 6.1b). Other passages in the movement (e.g. bar 45) could belong to the seventeenth century. What is less likely to come from models, however, is the coda (Ex. 6.1c), where repeated motifs have the rhetoric typical of the string quartet: the subdued effect is very much at home in the new genre, a sign of things to come.

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