The Limitations of Nomenclature: Introductions by Beethoven and Brahms

In February I’m offering an all day seminar on the topic of “Introduction to Music Theory” and am beginning to look at materials I may wish to use. Pawing through a stack of standard theoretical texts, I was amused to note that certain chords which have variable functions are typically described in exactly the same terms, as if they always functioned identically. Well, have pity on the analyst, he cannot afford to invent new nomenclatures for every passage he analyzes. He has to look at a chord and ask: “Is you is, or is you ain’t, my Baby?” But some labels are downright misleading, and can lead to comical misunderstandings. I was nearly scarred for life as a kid by some lunatic’s analysis of the beginning of Beethoven’s First (C major) symphony which he described as opening in F major, as a charming feint, rather than giving the correct, if more prosaic analysis, which understands the opening salvo as part of the establishment, so to speak.  A witty student of mine imagined C Major in this passage as bragging, “I’m so strong, even my henchmen have henchmen.” But that’s just it about theory; it tries so hard to be systematic, that it all too frequently misses the forest for the trees. By far the greatest tonal theorist in history was Arnold Schoenberg. His magisterial tome, “Harmonielehre” is rightly a book of philosophy, essentially…less philopsophical paths don’t necessarily go to Aintree. But you can say this for standarized nomenclature: “When the mind is at sea, a word forms a raft.”

In the parlance of harmonic analysis, the Beethoven First Symphony and the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem open with the same chord, known in the trade as  V/IV, (or the dominant of the  subdominant, for all you Poindexters out there)  you’d think they would make a similar effect. But they don’t. The Beethoven chord initiates a simple progression designed to promote the stability of the principal tone, or tonic, and the Brahms chord feels like a dissolution, or unravelling…which is an acutely beautiful metaphor when understood; a necessary precondition for a requiem is death, represented in the Brahms by joining a process of dissolution. And Brahms’ procedure allows one of the most awesomely moving passages in all music, the establishment of his principal key only at the words “…for they shall be comforted”- the second half of the opening line, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”. It’d be nice if the theorist could find a word for this magic.

Materials relevant to the upcoming seminar will be posted on this site sometime soon, available for download.