Saturday, April 6, 2019

Wrong Turn on Duke Street

[As is often the case, I come here to this we(b log) to document a thing I did, sometimes (as now) with no larger purpose in sight.]

An organist friend confessed on Facebook recently that he'd realized just before playing his own re-harmonization of a hymn that he was about to play "illegal" parallel fifths. He decided the violation was worth the aesthetic reward, but amongst the comments, a mutual friend suggested he try incorporating the "Tristan" chord into a hymn some day. This chord, perhaps the most famous in Western music history, is a famously ambiguous sonority that kicks off Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. [Click excerpt below to hear.]
I couldn't but help but think about ways to tackle this challenge. Because "The Tristan" and its resolution harmonizes an upward-reaching chromatic melody (G# - A - A# - B), I thought for a bit until the final phrase of the wonderfully four-square "Duke Street" came to mind.* It's not chromatic, but it does go up by step, and I figured I could sneak one extra passing note into the tune while the parts below get all murky. The way I've incorporated this is pretty different contextually from what Wagner did, but it's all there, even if the "resolution" goes by more quickly.

Here's the original transposed into the key of D Major I used. (OK, technically, the context I chose harmonizes an ascent from 6 to 8 instead of 7 to 2. So, from a "Tristan" perspective, it's as if we're briefly in C Minor, although that's not really a logical way to hear what I've written.):
And here's what those harmonies look like under the final phrase of "Duke Street."
And here's what it all sounds like, with a few more chromatic harmonies thrown in to wrap things up.


One big difference is that Wagner's version lingers on the most unsettled pitch (the leading tone G-sharp) with an accented longer note value, and the next-to-last note (also unsettled) is stressed, with its resolution in an unstressed position. In my version, the melody comes to rest on a strong downbeat on the tonic D. This means that aside from that little passing C-natural in the melody, the tune retains its Presbyterian propriety, and Tristan's longings are suppressed a bit.

This is always the kind of thing I love most about this sort of project, the way in which two incongruent styles can meet in the middle, with some give and take. Although the "Tristan" chord moment passes quickly, it's referenced again in the downbeat of m. 15, which repeats the chord with different voicing.** Also, as the "Tristan" chord is enharmonic to a half-diminished 7th chord (the most beautiful of all 7th chords), I chose a half-diminished ii chord for the next-to-last harmony. A ii-I progression is closely related to the IV-I "Amen" cadence, so this felt just wrong enough to be right.

Here's a silly little visualization of the basic process. I like the visualization because it illustrates the idea of two separate musical entities merging.


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* It's not so surprising that this tune came to mind; I wrote just a few months back about a prelude and fugue I've written on "Duke Street."

** That low A-flat in m.15 of my harmonization should really be a G-sharp, but I wanted to keep the connection to the spelling used in m.13.




2 comments:

Unknown said...

My own post-Tristanesque harmonization (with organ obbligato) of "Ach, daß nicht die letzte Stunde" is, you might say, hypertrophied to the point of delirium. Perhaps not quite suitable for a religious service. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_LX4YBn6GA (Unfortunately, the hairpin dynamics got "misplaced" when the file was sent from MuseScore to YouTube, but the rendering is not affected).

MICHAEL MONROE said...

Thanks for this comment! I could definitely imagine this used in a religious service, though would be a challenge for singers. Would be nice to hear it with piano or organ sounds - I find MIDI "Ahs" to be hard to tune in to for some reason.