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 Harmony: functional and dysfunctional

 by Professor Wilfrid Mellers

 Part IV (B): The legacy of Wagner's Tristan; and Debussy's perilous promise.

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:

Claude Debussy
(1862 - 1918)

Voiles (no.2 from the first book
of preludes) - opening bars

Debussy: Voiles - opening bars

Claude Debussy

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