Monthly Archives: November 2016

The ascending direction in the harmony of Chopin and Scriabin and its semantics by Ildar Khannanov

*Translator’s introduction; The Scriabin Association is privileged to present here an article by the distinguished Russian scholar Ildar Khannanov. Dr. Khannanov teaches musical theory at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore. He studied music under the supervision of the prominent Russian theorist Yuri Kholopov[2] at Moscow Conservatoire, and philosophy under Jacques Derrida at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Khannanov’s publications have appeared in Russia, America and Europe.

The present article was originally published in Russian in the Scriabin Museum’s series of scholarly publications, Uchenye Zapiski, in 2012. An article written for a specialist Russian readership may need some introduction to a more general English-speaking public. 

Dr. Khannanov engages, in a strictly scientific and disciplined manner, with the problem of what music – and Scriabin’s music in particular – ‘means’, and how it ‘means’. There may be a need to explain to the general reader one theoretical concept, important in Dr. Khannanov’s article, which is rooted in Russian musical thought, and in the theory of Kholopov. This is the idea of vvodnotonovost’, a term without an exact English equivalent, meaning literally ‘leading-note-ness’, the leading-note having by definition a tendency to lead upward. It was defined by Kholopov in his article on ‘Chromaticism’ in the Musical Encyclopedia edited by Yu. V. Keldysh (published in Moscow from 1973–82) as ‘the introduction of leading-notes into any sonority or chord without the factor of alteration as a progression towards an augmented unison [the enharmonic equivalent of a major second].’ As a simple example, take a dominant ninth chord of C – B flat – E – G – D, and sharpen G to G sharp. The G sharp in the harmony thus produced lends to the harmony the quality of vvodnotonovost’. This is the opening harmony of the Prelude op. 48 no. 4, one of a group of preludes of which sketches are to be found amongst the sketches of the Poème de l’Extase.[3]  

Simon Nicholls

Amongst the scientific problems of the study of Scriabin’s music there is one which occupies an extremely modest position in the works of researchers. It concerns the individual qualities of voice-leading in the composer’s harmony and, in particular, of ascending motion in this voice-leading. This characteristic of Scriabin’s harmony is completely obvious, and it is significant both stylistically, in part, and, in a broader sense, in relation to the scientific study of harmony and of the theory of the Romantic style. But first let us specify that there are varying means of ‘moving upwards’ in music. There are various significances and meanings of such movement.

Ascending tendencies of a particular type appear for the first time, it may be said, in the harmonic language of Romanticism and in the music of Frédéric Chopin. Thus, for example, whereas ascent in Bach was the product of a figure of anabasis[4] and represented a melodic movement upwards, in Chopin this tendency was expressed in harmony by two means: the substitution of a sixth for the fifth of a tonic triad (as in the Mazurka op. 67 no. 2, bar 2) and by movement from the tonic to the mediant, I – III (in a great number of the themes of the mazurkas, etudes and polonaises.) The significance of ascending motion is also different in Bach and in Chopin. Whereas for the Baroque composer ascending motion was associated with ascending into Paradise, in the music of the early Romantics ascending motion was above all associated with an attempt to flee from reality.


As may be seen from the present example, at the beginning of the Cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54) Bach proposes a figure of ascent, of anabasis, starting with a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point.  The voices making up the harmonic arrangement move slowly upwards with effort, through the opposition of the material, and it is this which underlines the text: ‘Resist sin’. But this ascent does not break away from earth’s gravitational attraction; it acts within the framework of that field.

In comparison with this, an example from Chopin’s Mazurka op. 67 no. 2 represents a more complex, hidden, tragic version: gravitational support – the triad – becomes confused through the substitution of a sixth in place of the of the fifth.

Ex. 2

Ex. 2

This barely perceptible gesture (differing from the direct line of ascent in Bach) overcomes the power of the triad for a brief moment. Ascent as such does not take place, but a strong desire is expressed to leave ‘this vale of sorrow’. The interplay of non-harmonic notes is very interesting here: in the left hand, in the chord on the third beat [of the second bar] (in G minor) the tonic triad is replaced by a first inversion chord of the sixth degree by means of the substitution of the note E flat for D. Schenkerian theory[5] wholly ignores this gesture, inasmuch as it regards such a change, on the last beat of the bar, to be insignificant. It is even possible to reduce the E flat to an auxiliary note at the foreground level. The composer is sending us signals, as it were: the melody gallops past the note D, which here is no longer the fifth of the tonic triad, but an appoggiatura to the structural note E flat!

Regarding the other means of upward motion, the well-known movement in Chopin’s music from I – III in the bass, here too proponents of Schenker’s theory have blundered (this applies in part to Janet Schmalfeldt’s paper ‘One and the same, but in a different way: Chopin and the succession of ascending thirds’, given at the European Music Analysis Conference [EuroMac] VI, Freiburg, 2007): they regard this progression as part of an arpeggiation of the tonic triad in the bass. But how far this is from the truth! For the triad of the mediant, arriving directly after the tonic, does not express continuation, the prolongation of a static tonic, but an attempt to leave the tonic triad, to ‘fly up’ above it.

Ascending gestures produced by specific harmonic means also found their continuation in the music of Alexander Scriabin. In the Fantasy, op. 28, in the first subjects of the first movements of the sonatas nos. 2, 3 and 4, in a large number of preludes, etudes and poèmes, the ascending gesture is directed into the realm of the transcendental. The technique employed by Scriabin is different from Chopin’s: in it, ascending flows of harmonic energy are called forth by leading-notes which are breaking away from control, by a new interpretation of vvodnotonovost’[6] as a part of voice-leading.

Ex. 3

Ex. 3

The beginning of Scriabin’s Sonata no. 4 represents one of the most enigmatic and profoundly significant harmonic successions in European music. Novel and complex as it is, it occupies just eight bars, and refers to a prototype, to the form of an antecedent in ‘sentence’ form.[7] The succession starts with a major seventh chord, with its root, fifth and seventh in the left hand. And from the very moment this chord first appears there arises a sensation of a distortion of space of some kind, and of a striving of its lines to the right and upwards (which, above all, is evoked by the upward attraction of the major seventh). The first note of the melody, as always in Scriabin, is both separated from the harmony in the left hand and, simultaneously, indivisible from the harmony which pertains to it. It originates in the silence which surrounds it. It is isolated metrically (it appears on the first quaver of the second beat in the 6/8 metre), but it is represents the third of the major seventh chord and, as such, is understood as a long-awaited completion of the chord’s structure. It should be mentioned that this seventh chord is a subdominant. As it is the first in the melodic succession, it appears as completely isolated and absolutely undefined tonally. The neutral function of a subdominant in the absence of the tonic sonority completely disorients the listener. We find ourselves, as it were, in a cosmic expanse, although only one chord has been sounded.  If this chord were a dominant seventh, then its third would produce an unconditional attraction to the degree above it (as a leading-note to the tonic). But precisely because this chord is a major seventh, its third, in the melody, turns out to be in the field of activity of several gravitational centres.  Scriabin proposes the most interesting movement – a repetition and a leap of a fourth upwards, so that a quartal ascending harmony is obtained: B – E sharp – A – D sharp, and, further, G sharp. This rhythmically organised structure moves away upwards infinitely.

At the same time, the chord in the left hand undergoes irreversible and unpredictable changes. This technique is borrowed above all from Chopin, from his chromatic linear descending successions, but here it acquires new significances. The initial major seventh chord, instead of a ‘textbook’ resolution into the octave above, is suddenly ‘deflated’: its two upper notes ‘come down’. The obvious leading note and major seventh, A sharp, suddenly moves to A natural. According to the terminology of Yuri Kholopov, dezal’teratsiya takes place.[8] In its turn, the fifth of this seventh chord (F sharp) moves to a tritone (E sharp), which may be called a sign of a functional inversion. For a moment, a very familiar chord emerges: B – E sharp – A – D sharp – the ‘Tristan chord’. However, it passes over in a moment, without the resolution which is due to it (Chopin, it may be remarked, does the same thing in the mazurkas, that is to say he gives us a harmony which passes through just as speedily.) This chord adds a nostalgic meaning to the already complicated multiple significance of the vvodnotonovost’.

On the other hand, the ‘Tristan chord’ on B must resolve, according to rule, into a dominant seventh chord on A sharp. The most surprising thing is that this harmony does partly appear after the ‘Tristan chord’, but it has a different third: instead of the C double sharp which is presupposed, first D sharp is heard and then C sharp. And this is also a means of leaving the gravitational field of tonality.  As a whole, as is well known, post-Romantic harmony uses three principal methods of development: the substitution of more complex chords for simpler ones, the propagation of more complex harmonies from simple ones, and the presentation of the function of a simple chord as more complex. But there are also many variations on these three methods. Thus, the unexpected partial alteration of an expected chord (a minor seventh chord instead of a dominant seventh) holds back something of what is expected, but also adds something completely new. A technique of this sort is related to the succession and interaction of images in a dream, when we see places and people that are familiar, but strangely altered.

Further: above the notes of this minor seventh chord (bar 3), above the A sharp in the bass, the melody suddenly decides to ‘fly up’ to the seventh. The upflight takes place as a result of a circular, spiralling movement (G sharp – D sharp – E sharp – C sharp). It is strange that the harmony has not supported this upflight with an increase of tension. The melody has managed to generate energy by itself by means of the most simple revolving motion. The leap has proved to be incorporeal. In it is no terrestrial energy; there is only the graphical trace of a meteor silently flashing through the heavens. And here Scriabin does not make use of standardised methods, breaking away by a long distance from his predecessors Wagner and Liszt.

Beneath the C sharp which the melody reaches in its leap (second beat of bar 3), an altogether strange harmony also emerges: A natural – C sharp – E sharp – G sharp – a major seventh chord with augmented fifth, which, moreover, is constructed on the lowered third degree in the key of F sharp minor! With a third doubled at the octave (C sharp), this chord brings to mind contrapuntal lines solidified and fettered in the ice. By its geometry it also brings mind the pose of a hero who has prepared himself to fly up to the stars, but is suddenly paralysed under the influence of an enigmatic cosmic cataclysm. This chord characterises Scriabin’s poetics: he does not fly into the cosmos, but he wants to fly away.

The subsequent transformation in this unique harmonic succession is as follows: the lowering of the seventh of the chord of the major seventh with augmented fifth – from G sharp to G natural. An association involuntarily arises with a secondary dominant seventh chord (to the lowered sixth degree) with a raised fifth. But this complex chord behaves in a way that exceeds all our expectations: it suddenly resolves into a tonic chord in first inversion! In truth, the simplest chord in such surroundings acquires an unprecedented radiance.  This first inversion chord, with A sharp in the bass, begins to sound like a dominant to the subdominant.[9] Scriabin knows the tendencies of standard voice-leading excellently and is playing with our expectations. It may be mentioned that the bass voice has taken a remarkable path: from A sharp to A natural and back to A sharp, while the return to A sharp has coincided with a movement in the melody from E sharp to F sharp.  The sliding chromatic sixths evoke an almost tactile sensation of movement.

But a minimal amount of time is also allotted to the first inversion chord of the tonic – only the last upbeat of the bar; and on the downbeat another ‘stretched’ chord is sounded: D natural –  F sharp – C sharp – A sharp.  Scriabin’s chords are remarkably adept at conveying a movement which has been momentarily captured, as in a photograph of the highest artistic quality. Here it is a very complicated task to define the function of the chord, but the movement of the voices in it is very clear. Whither the voices move after becoming ‘unfrozen’ is comprehensible. It is essential to mention that this last ‘stretched’ chord represents the culmination of a development over five bars, after which two simpler chords are sounded in bars 6 and 7. These two – Scriabin’s favourite enhanced dominant and dominant ­­– are a kind of cadence, a dénouement to the events. Scriabin follows the ancient law of harmonic succession and gives us simpler chords for the cadence. But the most interesting thing is that after this cadence an ‘epilogue’ is sounded which returns us to the cosmiс expanse of Scriabin’s ‘suspended’ and ‘flying’ harmony. There are 8 bars in all, but a contraction takes place at the beginning, so that the cadence is reached in bars 6 and 7 and a non-tonal epilogue has its place in bar 8.

As a whole, the harmony in the present succession does not break with the tradition of centuries. In contrast to, let us say, the American music of such composers as Leon Kirchner or Ned Rater, the harmony of Scriabin is striking in its meaningful syntax and correct voice-leading. In essence, the principles of vvodotonovost’ are retained, while purposeful chords are constructed, and functional arches and large-scale connections guarantee linear continuity and meaningfulness. The present    succession differs from academic harmony in the interspersion of leading-notes and the new interpretation of the degrees to which they lead. Leading-notes break away from the control of standard voice-leading and take Skryabin’s music off into an open cosmos, beyond the limits of reality, into the realm of the transcendent.

How did Chopin and Scriabin understand the transcendent: in what respect is their understanding more similar, and what respect does Scriabin’s understanding differ from Chopin’s? Situated in the overall context of the philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their concepts of the transcendent were based on the ideas of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But each had his own complementary tendencies. For example, in Chopin the transcendent is also connected with the heroic fate of Poland, whereas in Scriabin a whole bouquet of ideas is presented, including the mystical role of art, the role of technology (of new forms of tonality and harmony) and the idea of the highest refinement. All these ideas had an effect on the birth of musical images which strive into the boundless, into the cosmos, and without the attraction of the ideas which have been mentioned a discussion of the new tonality seems to be without meaning or purpose.

Returning to the problems of harmony and tonality, it is essential to mention that in the music of Scriabin, Chopin and also of Rachmaninov differing resolutions of the geometry of tonal space are presented. In the works of these composers, in particular, certain tendencies emerge in chordal connections, and directional aspects of harmony are manifested. Chopin was the first to displace the fifth of the tonic, which together with the first degree of the scale forms the basis of tonal stability, and to open, speaking figuratively, the path upward. Rachmaninov displaced the fifth in his own way: he substituted the fourth for it and created a special type of ‘falling’ harmony, in which the principle event is the fall of the subdominant to the tonic. Scriabin, though, created a symphony of free vvodnotonovost’, as a result of which the cosmos became much nearer and more comprehensible, and the transcendental principle in music was manifested in all  fullness.

Translation: Simon Nicholls

[1] Original publication: ‘Voskhodyashchee napravlenie v garmonii Shopena i Skryabina i ego semantika’, Uchenye zapiski, issue 7, book 1, Memorial’nyi muzei A. N. Skryabina, Moscow, 2012, p. 57–63.

[2] Yuri Kholopov (1932–2003), prominent Russian musicologist and educator. Taught at Moscow Conservatoire from 1963. His numerous and influential publications cover practically all aspects of musical theory; his textbook Harmony: theoretical course (in Russian) can be consulted at Kholopov’s article Scriabin and the Harmony of the 20th century, first published in the Scriabin Museum’s Uchenye zapiski, issue I, 1993, p. 25–38, was translated with a commentary by Philip Ewell and published in the Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, vol. 11 no. 1, Winter 2006–2007, p. 12–25.

[3] V. V. Rubtsova, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin, Muzyka, Moscow, 1985, p.263.

[4] Anabasis (classical Greek): literally, ‘moving away from the foundation’, movement upwards – the name of one of the rhetorical figures employed in music of the Baroque. It also signifies ‘Ascension’ in Scripture.

[5]  The theory of Heinrich Schenker is based on graphical analysis of voice-leading and its reduction to three level. [The first level is the foreground, the composition itself or a close approximation to it, the second the middleground, where the music is reduced to a more basic, simple form, and  the third the background, where the fundamental structure is intended to be revealed. See Oswald Jonas, Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (Macmillan, 1987); Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition, ed. and trans. Ernst Oster (Longman, 1979). trans.]

[6] See introduction [trans].

[7] In the terminology of musical analysis a ‘sentence’ (Satz) consists of two elements, the ‘antecendent’ (Vordersatz) and the ‘consequent’ (Nachsatz). [trans.]

[8] Kholopov’s concept of dezal’teratsiya refers to the movement of a chromaticised note to its diatonic equivalent. The term is not anglicised here in order to avoid confusion with the quite different German concept of Disalteration (a note resolving simultaneously upwards and downwards). [trans.]

[9] For a simpler example of this phenomenon see the end of the Prelude for left hand, op. 9 no. 1 [trans.]