Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Music Lovers Digest

George Bernard Shaw on the Growth of Harmony

The technical history of modern harmony is a history of the growth of tolerations by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians. By senseless I mean, in the case of a discord, that you cannot forsee its resolution or relate it to a key. Great composers anticipate the rank and file of us in this sort of perception, and consequently in the toleration of combinations which seem unbearable in the absence of any such perception.

Musicians had to confine themselves to thirds and fifths until somebody - we used to say it was Monteverde - ventured to pile a minor third on top of the fifth in a very cautious way, introducing the new note first as a third, fifth, or unison in the previous chord, and letting it sweeten itself into a concord again in the following one; preparation and resolution, as we call it.

It took quite a long time before the battle over the toleration of this discord of the seventh was so thoroughly won that it could be expelled without preparation on an audience in any position. I can still remember the time when its last inversion - with the seventh in the bass - sounded strange and dramatically momentous, as in the first finale in Don Giovanni, and especially in Beethoven's early Prometheus overture, which opens with an abrupt third inversion of the seventh, fortissimo.

By that time, however, minor ninths, then called diminished sevenths, were familiar; and Wagner's battle began with unprepared major ninths, which, joyously blared forth in the second act of Tannhauser, sounded as scandalous as anything in Richard Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica does today.

Who cares about an unprepared major ninth now, or an eleventh, or a thirteenth? Yet when you have accustomed people to these, you have conquered the whole diatonic scale, and may sound every note in it simultaneously, leaving nothing for future generations to discover but the art of making chords out of combinations of different keys, an art in which we are already making experiments.

- From the Proceedings of the London Musical Association

How the Fake Composer Works

The procedure of the fake composer illustrates very well the fable of "The Ass in the Lion's Skin." I can only speak of him as far as my personal experience goes.

A man, whom I afterward recognized as one of the most successful popular song writers of his day came to me some years ago and told me that he had heard of me as a good musician, at which I bowed gratefully. He then proceeded to tell me that he had composed a song. I asked him, with polite interest, to play or sing it for me, at which he looked at me with blank amazement, telling me that if he had been able to do this he would not have required my services.

It was then my turn to gaze at him with surprise, until he explained that he had invented (!!) a melody, which he had learned to whistle almost without a mistake, and all that he wanted me to do was to jot it down as he whistled it and to harmonize it. For this he would magnanimously pay me the fee of five dollars. I answered that even if I could be induced to do this work for him, I would like to adopt a nom de plume. He then became quite indignant, stating that as he was the composer, he would have only his own name used. I leave to the reader's imagination the termination of the interview.

This is not by any means the only case of its kind that has come to my notice, and in fact, this man very frankly told me that he only came to me, because the regular staff of "drudges" who performed this ask at his publisher's for him, were too busy that day taking down the inventions of other "composers."

- Andre Benoist in Musical America (New York)

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