Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Extraordinary Function and the Half-Diminished Seventh in the Song of the Wood Dove

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Extraordinary Function and the Half-Diminished Seventh in the Song of the Wood Dove

Article excerpt

[1] In the years following the debut of the Tristan chord, a number of works have continued the dialogue on how half-diminished sevenths function. Arnold Schoenberg famously noted that "there has been great argument over the question as to which degree [the Tristan chord] belongs" (Schoenberg 1911, 309-310).(1) While Schoenberg acknowledged the debate and confusion in 1911, he also pointed the way towards a process of understanding: "...essential to us is the chord's function, and it reveals itself when we know the chord's possibilities" (Schoenberg 1911, 310).(2) Only recently have we taken Schoenberg's words to heart and examined the various options inherent in half-diminished sevenths; only recently has our theoretical inquiry moved beyond elemental questions, allowing us to unravel the complicated musical contexts with which we wrestle.

[2] The passage in Example 1a comes from the end of "Tauben von Gurre!," the last song in Part I of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Both the metrical placement and prolongation through the half-diminished seventh center the passage around the E triad. Diatonic theories tend to consider this seventh a transformation of something more familiar, usually an altered vii7. One might expect its uses to be limited because it lacks a clearly defined root and contains at least two scale-steps with plausible enharmonic reinterpretations, or and or . Yet this half-diminished sonority is found in Classic era works, where the expectations it develops are merely a glimpse into the possibilities that are critical to deciphering the large-scale formal shape of "Tauben," the Song of the Wood Dove.(3)

Example 1. Gurrelieder, measures 1086-1088

(click to enlarge and see the rest)

I. Introducing the Half-Diminished Seventh

[3] Relying on conventional theory to address the musical practices of late chromatic harmony can be problematic because, as Carl Dahlhaus observes, "the essential element in the association of chords is semitonal connection and not root progression...chromaticism has achieved a degree of independence from its origins in alteration" (Deathridge and Dahlhaus 1984, 199; Kinderman and Krebs 1996, 4). By now, the analytical tensions this repertoire causes are familiar: the harmonic contents are often unyielding to classification in fundamentally diatonic systems, while individual pieces create their own stylistic tendencies (Proctor 1978; Kinderman and Krebs 1996). While classic studies on chromaticism concentrate on formal shape, more recent scholarship provides analytical entry points into the details, focusing on seventh chords instead of triads, obfuscation instead of clarification, and tension rather than release.

[4] Charles Smith's 1986 article on extravagant function considers chromaticism a combination of harmonic and contrapuntal motion (Smith 1986, 103-105). This perspective justifies a series of alternative dominants that replace the diatonic scale-step with or ,and among them are three chromatic half-diminished sevenths, reproduced in Example 2a. To Smith, the chromatic chords are self-sufficient; they act as delicate dominants due to their context and the presence of the leading tone (Smith 1986, 126-127).(4) Here, the second of the sevenths is the same sonority found throughout Schoenberg's "Tauben."(5) While subsequent studies suggest that such sevenths may have more than one function, their mere acknowledgement as bona fide harmonies is crucial to the analysis of the chromatic repertoire.(6) In turn, our appreciation of such chords influences a range of issues, including the enharmonic reinterpretations of harmonic tones and the importance of multi-key relationships.

Example 2

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[5] More recently, Richard Bass describes how half-diminished sevenths cause us additional complications because we still consider them the product of linear motion when they occur outside their traditional contexts-that is, in forms other than vii7 or ii7 (Bass 2001, 41). …

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