Harmony: functional and dysfunctional
by Professor Wilfrid Mellers
Part IV (B): The legacy of Wagner's Tristan; and Debussy's
Deification of the ego could hardly go further than the Wagner cult at
Bayreuth, where a temple was built for the performance of the Master's creation,
instead of the music being composed to fulfil the temple's needs. In Byrd's
five-voiced mass we noted how the personal element of expressive harmony
grew out of the melodic flowering of religious polyphony. Wagner,
in Tristan and Parsifal, inverts this process; starting from
the fluctuating tensions of harmony, he 'spreads out' the chords to make
a tissue of linear motives he called a 'new polyphony'. The religion he
celebrates is not a fanatical belief in God, nor even in man-made civilization,
but in Himself; he explicitly said that the making of Bayreuth was the fulfilment
of the destiny he had planned 'for Myself and Humanity!'
Self-deification on this scale is certainly one of the supreme achievements
of humanity, though the perils it proffers are obvious. Delius, a composer
as fanatically dedicated to Wagner as Wagner had been to Beethoven, in a
sense carries Wagnerian egomania a stage further in that, born in Bradford
and loathing industrial England, he ended up making a music virtually devoid
of human population - and in having little or no use for any music but his
own. In his finest works, Sea-Drift and A Song of the High Hills,
he himself is the only human consciousness who, communing with Nature and
solitude, attempts to relinquish the ever-obtrusive Self in the impersonal
forces of wind and sea and sky: as we may hear in the wondrous passage in
Song of the High Hills wherein instrumental chromatic tensions deliquesce
into a wordless vocal chorus - human voices being deliberately de-humanized.
There is further irony in the fact that Delius's response to Nature's
impersonality calls, for its realization, on a gigantic symphony orchestra
such as could have been created only with the help of industrial technology.
Although the logic of Delius's chromatic progressions is ceasing to be
a matter of coherent tradition, the idea of progression is still
relevant to his music, which is intelligable in relation to late Wagner.
In some of the music of Debussy, however, we find a more radical exploration
of the moment of sensation, without before or after: as is evident in the
piano prelude, Voiles, the first part of which is based entirely
on the chord of the augmented fifth - which generates whole-tone chords
devoid of harmonically functional meaning:
(1862 - 1918)
Voiles (no.2 from the first book
of preludes) - opening bars
The chord almost becomes an emotional experience in itself, to be savoured
as a titillation of the aural palate, in the same way as impressionist painters
savoured Nature's colours and shapes. Although such a (very beautiful) piece
is not what makes Debussy a major figure in European history, its concentration
on the passing moment is of enormous historical import: one could not wish
for a more complete triumph of a personal aesthetic. It's worth noting that
Debussy, like Delius, abominated academic institutions. One day when he
was improvising at the piano an outraged professor asked him what 'rules'
he followed: to which the student Debussy witheringly retorted: 'Mon plaisir'.
Of course this, though a crisis in, was not the end of, European history
or its music. Indeed the release from will and ego, though in one sense
a negation, also had a positive aspect which sowed seeds of renewal. This
process must be considered in a further series.
Copyright © 1999 Wilfrid Mellers