Ligeti Triads

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    A remarkable feature of Gyo rgy Ligeti's music dating from the late 1970s isthe return of triads, seventh chords and other traditional tertian harmonies.In the 1960s, he received acclaim for works such as Atmosphe res and theRequiem, which stressed the textural and timbral shaping of clusters at theexpense of harmony as it is traditionally understood. In contrast, his latest

    compositions make frequent use of triadic sonorities, albeit placed inunfamiliar contexts (one would be hard-pressed to describe his recent musicas neo-tonal).1 The triad, previously scorned for its recollections of tonalpractice, is now tolerated. Manifestations of this tendency can be seen inworks such as Hungarian Rock, Passacaglia ungarese, the piano e tudes Arc-en-ciel and Cordes a vide, and the Horn Trio. Perhaps the clearest instance ofhis new approach to harmony occurs in the opening section of his fourthe tude, Fanfares (shown in Ex. 1).2

    The harmonies in phrase 1 ofFanfares are a result of the coincidence of the

    ostinato in the left hand and the more melodic dyads in the right hand. Theostinato (which runs throughout the entire piece) is composed of a diatonictetrachord and its transposition by a tritone the first tetrachord begins on c(c, d, e, f), the second on f (f, g, a, b). This simple bipartite structureconflicts with the asymmetric metre, which divides the bar into three unevenbeats of 3+2+3 quavers (these units are brought out by accents in theostinato), accenting the notes c, f and g. The right hand's dyads coincide withthese accented ostinato notes. From the perspective of set theory, the resultantsimultaneities are trichords of set-class 311. Later, the addition of a fourth

    note to the texture expands the harmonic palette to include 427 tetrachords inphrase 3, 310 trichords in phrase 4 and 420 tetrachords in phrase 5. From theperspective of traditional harmonic practice, these chords are nothing otherthan a series of triads and seventh chords major triads in phrase 1, minortriads in phrase 2. In phrase 3, the addition of an extra note to various chords(placed a third below the root of the triads) introduces minor seventh chords.In phrase 4, diminished triads first appear. And in the final phrase in thissection (phrase 5), major seventh chords enter.

    Although these verticals may be identified easily enough, it is more difficult

    to determine how they function in the present context. Reference to tonal

    Music Analysis, 22/iii (2003) 283 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK









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    practice is oblique at best. Fanfares engages with, as Mike Searby writes, `thevocabulary but not the syntax of tonal music'.3 What is retained of this

    `vocabulary' is the constitution of the harmonies themselves. They are alltertian sonorities; or, as the excerpt from Fanfares indicates, they are all chordsbuilt upon the foundation of the triad. This is evident in the expansion of themajor triads of phrase 1 into minor seventh chords in phrase 3. In phrase 1,when the dyads are situated above the ostinato, the resulting triads areexclusively major (C, F, D, A, etc.); in phrase 2, when the dyads are belowthe ostinato, the resulting triads are exclusively minor (D, F, A, B, etc.). Inphrase 3, the dyads return to the upper register, and the chords are major onceagain at least until the entry of the C minor seventh chord in bar 23. The

    conceptual origin of this simultaneity is clear: the C minor seventh is theproduct of an E major triad plus c.

    f g a b f a g f d c c

    d f a b c a c

    D A F B A F E G

    C F D A E F B A

    Ex. 1 Fanfares, bars 117

    E tudes pour Piano. Premier livre. Schott Musik International GmbH & Co. KG, Mainz. Reproduced by kind permission.

    Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003 Music Analysis, 22/iii (2003)

    284 ERIC DROTT

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    Further complicating the role of the triads and seventh chords in Fanfares isthe consistent stratification of the texture into two seemingly independentlayers. The contrast in character and function between the two parts isapparent: the rigid and unvarying ostinato sets off the more fluid, apparently

    improvisatory succession of dyads. The simultaneities produced from theconjunction of these two parts are not pronounced; the fact that they only comeinto being by straddling two separate textural strands weakens their sense ofcohesion. Nevertheless, there is a covert relationship established early in thepiece between the two parts, which delimits the fund of harmonies available atany given moment. Since the dyads coincide with accented ostinato notes, andsince the ostinato is (by definition) not subject to alteration, only a handful ofharmonies is feasible. According to this constraint, the dyad falling on thedownbeat of the notated bar in phrase 1 may harmonise with the c in the

    ostinato in three ways, forming a C major, an A major or an F major triad. Inphrase 2, the same note in the ostinato yields a C minor, an A minor or an Fminor triad. Beyond this, there are no hard-and-fast rules that determinewhich particular harmony `should' or `should not' be used. (The onlysuccession that Ligeti consistently avoids is direct repetition of a chord. Eventhough the ostinato's c and f can both be harmonised with an F major triad,there is no occasion when both notes are harmonised with the same chordconsecutively.) This method of arranging the harmonies ensures not only thatthe music will avoid clear-cut tonal progressions, but also that the musical

    surface, taken as a whole, will be more or less chromatic.One way of accounting for the incongruity between diatonic harmonies and

    the overall chromatic pitch space they occupy not to mention the incongruitybetween the presence of triads (the quintessential markers of tonal music) andtheir resolutely non-tonal setting would be to place Ligeti's late music underthe rubric of the postmodern. Certainly, these works represent a renunciationof the (late) modernist concern for stylistic consistency and purity, leaninginstead towards a more inclusive musical language. Yet this way of under-standing his recent music may turn out to be trivial, if postmodernism is taken

    as a periodising term; by this measure, everything written in the past twenty-five to thirty years is, in one way or another, postmodern. Furthermore, it isvital not to use the term `postmodern' simply as shorthand for musicalsyncretism that is, it is vital not to efface what is distinctive about thisrestorative gesture.4 Saying that the use of triadic harmony is postmodern doesnot say much, given the breadth and vagueness of this term. To do Ligeti'sharmonic practice justice, one needs to situate it more precisely. For, asFrederic Jameson has pointed out, there are `as many different forms ofpostmodernisms as there were high modernisms in place, since the former are

    . . . specific and local reactions against these models'.


    Jameson's observationsuggests that the best way to approach Ligeti's `rediscovery' of triadic harmony

    Music Analysis, 22/iii (2003) Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003


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    is to read it through the lens of the specific, local modernisms to which itresponds. And this in turn suggests that there is not a single exclusionary logicthat explains the prohibition of triadic harmony during the ascendancy ofatonal and serial music in the 1950s, but that there are a number of logics,

    which must be explored in their own particularity. To this end, I will begin bydiscussing two arguments against the use of the triad in modern music thoseposited by Pierre Boulez and Theodor Adorno before returning to Fanfaresto see how it may counter such arguments.6

    But two disclaimers are in order one terminological, the other historical.Firstly, I will use the term `triadic harmony' throughout this article to refer tothe entire range of tertian sonorities that have their conceptual basis in thetriad. In many cases, this usage reflects the actual processes at work in Ligeti'slater music, where seventh and ninth chords are the products of adding notes

    onto a triadic substrate (such is the case in Fanfares). Furthermore, I will usethis term in a deliberately loose manner, since the harmonies he employs are asmuch symbolic entities as they are generative or syntactic ones. His late worksmay allude to functional harmony, without invoking functions as such: they areempty referents. But although clear-cut tonal function may be lacking, thesechords play upon (and against) an essential quality shared by triads andseventh chords their relative harmoniousness. As Boulez's and Adorno'scomments on triadic harmony will demonstrate, the problem posed by triads(and, by extension, seventh chords) is not simply their potential to invoke tonal

    convention, but their ability to fuse individual pitches into a single,supervenient entity. It is the ease with which triads and seventh chords areable to `coalesce', to come together as single perceptual units relative to non-tertian sonorities, that is at issue in Ligeti's later works an ease that is as muchthe product of the acculturated familiarity of these harmonies as of psycho-acoustical factors.

    Secondly, it should be noted that Ligeti's belated response to the positionsstaked out by Boulez and Adorno is indirect in nature. His reaction to themodernist aesthetic typified by these two authors takes shape as a reaction to

    the modernist impuls