A Piercing Harmony

by Ron Samuels

Do you make lists? Grocery, to-do, or holiday gift lists? How about deserted island lists? As in, if you were stranded on a deserted island, what ten movies would you take with you? What ten books to read? Pieces of music to listen to? 

But what if you couldn’t choose complete works of music? What if you were pressed to select not even movements of pieces, nor melodies from those movements? What if you were limited to choose a favorite chord? 

In our rarefied world of classical music, there exists a particular chord, a piercing harmony, that rattles me to my core. It appears in countless musical phrases, sometimes as a mere, fleeting moment; in other instances, it emerges as a flash of profound beauty, longing, tenderness, and poignancy. I would like to share with you a top-five list of these piercing harmonies. 

But first… 

A Brief Theory Lesson 

What exactly is this chord? If you have a piano, and whether or not you read music, please use the following image of a keyboard to help. 

Try to play the five notes together, as one chord, one harmony. The first four (left to right) comprise a major chord – C, E, G, C – and the highest pitch, F#, is an augmented fourth above the second C. F# is not part of a C Major chord. Rather, it is what we call a non-harmonic tone, or dissonance. To highlight this dissonance, try to play just the G and the F# at the same time. These two notes together clash the most. Play again the five notes together. Now, while continuing to hold down the notes of the major chord – C, E, G, C resolve the F# to its lower neighbor, E. When this harmony appears in a musical phrase, and in the five examples I will share, the augmented fourth always resolves to its lower neighbor.

A Brief History Lesson 

The relationship between the tonic pitch of a major chord and the augmented fourth is an interval with a fascinating history. Remaining in the key of C Major, the tonic is C, and the augmented fourth above is F#. That augmented fourth interval is also known as a tritone. The Western music octave is divided into twelve semitones. The tritone is an interval that spans six semitones, or, cuts the octave exactly in half. So, that same F#, as it travels upward to the next C, now a diminished fifth, is also a tritone. 

The tritone is an interval that spans six semitones

A tritone has an inherent restlessness to its character. But in centuries past, the tritone was not merely restless, it was taboo. During both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, musical treatises forbade its use. The tritone was deemed The Devil in Music. Apocryphal stories of musicians risking punishment, excommunication, or worse for playing or singing this diabolical interval are most likely greatly exaggerated. Still, when the two notes of this interval sound together, there is an unmistakably sinister quality. It is also interesting to note, that if you cut in half the tritone, you have two minor third intervals. If you were to build a chord based on minor thirds, you would have what is called a diminished seventh chord, three sets of tritones (C-F#, Eb-A, F#-C). The diminished seventh chord was a commonly used harmonic basis for suspense and horror film soundtracks of the early sound era. 

A Diminished Seventh chord, splitting the tritone

The Age of Enlightenment (the Baroque and Classical periods of music history), put to rest the tritone’s banishment. The interval was welcomed and subsequently treated, like many dissonances of harmony, as the tension and release in a particular phrase or cadence. And when combined, or masked, inside a chord, the result could be magical – a piercing harmony. 

The List 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Quintet in A, K. 581 for clarinet and strings (1789) 

This sublime work, along with the Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622 (1791) was written near the end of Mozart’s life. The second movement Larghetto from the Quintet is particularly transcendent. 

The opening phrase employs our piercing harmony in the second measure. The harmony in the strings is G Major, while the clarinet plays a dissonant, or non-harmonic C# above that chord, resolving soon after down to a B, part of the G Major chord. 

Mozart Quintet in A, K. 581 II excerpt

Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
2nd movement Larghetto

If embedded audio doesn’t work, please try this direct link: Mozart Clarinet Quintet excerpt (opens in a new tab)

Michael Rusinek, clarinet, Noah Bendix-Bagley & Christopher Wu, violin,
Meng Wang, viola, Anne Martindale-Williams, cello
Carnegie Music Hall, April 29, 2014

Its use here is slight, occurring briefly in just the first half of the first beat of the second measure. Nevertheless, as the long phrase unfolds, its use is particularly touching. 

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Concerto No. 1 in C, op. 15 for piano and orchestra (1795, rev. 1800)

It is no surprise that our piercing harmony appears again in a slow movement, marked Largo. We often discover it in moments of slower tempos, where there is time to relish it. It arrives here in the movement’s sixth measure of the opening eight-measure phrase. Note that measure five is quite similar to the first measure, nearly a repetition. But in measure six, Beethoven instead employs our piercing harmony in a point of gentle emphasis, the G above the Db Major harmony. Unlike the Mozart example, where the piercing harmony was a mere half-beat passing tone, Beethoven savors the dissonance a tad longer, as it sounds for nearly a full beat before resolving. 

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 II. excerpt

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15 by Ludwig van Beethoven
2nd movement Largo

If embedded audio doesn’t work, please try this direct link: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 excerpt (opens in a new tab)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Labadie, conductor & Jan Lisiecki, piano
Heinz Hall, April 2018

If you listen to the entire Largo, note in the recapitulation that Beethoven treats the return of the opening melody with florid ornamentation. But when he reprises the same piercing harmony, he employs just three grace-notes, as if to indicate that it requires very little decoration. 

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in e, op. 98 (1885)

Our piercing harmony makes its appearance in the fourth movement of this titanic work, the last of the four symphonies Brahms would compose. The movement, marked Allegro energico e passionato, begins with eight demonstrative chords played by the winds and brass. It then develops into a passacaglia, with thirty-two variations. One of those variations is a poignant, reflective chorale played by the trombones, bassoons and horns. Strings accompany. 


Symphony No. 4 in e minor, op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
4th movement Allegro energico e passionato

If embedded audio doesn’t work, please try this direct link: Brahms Symphony No. 4 excerpt (opens in a new tab)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, conductor
Heinz Hall, April 2018

Quite interestingly, this chorale is the movement’s literal, if not spiritual, center. Its tranquility, however, is brutally interrupted with the reprisal of the same eight chords of the movement’s opening, with sixteen more variations to follow – urgent, dramatic, and fatalistic to the symphony’s conclusion. 

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) 
Concerto in b, op. 104, B. 191 for Cello and Orchestra (1894-95) 

Speaking of deserted-island lists, how many of you would include this divine work among a short list of concertos you would want on hand to listen to? I certainly would. The enchanting Adagio, ma non troppo (2nd movement) is where we now find our piercing harmony. The movement opens with a simple theme, played by two clarinets, accompanied by oboes and bassoons. The solo cello enters with the same theme in measure nine, but Dvořák interrupts the cello with a solo clarinet playing an upward chordal figure. This leads us to a new development of the theme, where again two clarinets carry the melody. The solo cello adds a counter melody before resuming the lead melodic voice. You will hear the piercing harmony three times during this episode. 

Dvorak Cello Concerto Excerpt

Cello Concerto in b minor, op. 104 by Antonín Dvořák
2nd movement Adagio, ma non troppo

If embedded audio doesn’t work, please try this direct link: Dvořák Cello Concerto excerpt (opens in a new tab)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Juraj Valcuha, conductor & Joshua Roman, cello
Heinz Hall, February 2016

Upon hearing if for the first time, Brahms is reported to have said, “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? Had I known, I would have written one long ago!” 

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
“Prelude” from Tristan und Isolde (1857-59)  

This seminal work, which Wagner referred to not as an opera but as a drama, is both a pinnacle of 19th-century romanticism and a pathway to 20th-century modernism. The Prelude to Act I is often paired with the Liebstod (Love Death) in symphonic concert performances, with or without singer (Isolde). One particularly distinguishing musical feature is the use of harmonic suspension, the very essence of our piercing harmony. 

The example given here is its first of three uses. The opening short phrase employs the now- legendary Tristan chord. It is the first of five motivic utterances that are divided by silences, each gaining in expressive intensity, but none reaching a harmonic resolution. Hector Berlioz, to whom Wagner presented the first copy of the score, likened these phrases to “a kind of chromatic moan, filled with dissonance, further intensifying the painfulness.” Finally, on the sixth phrase – marked sforzando (sudden accent), then piu forte (louder), and finally fortissimo (very loud) – the piercing harmony sounds, before resolving to a much softer dynamic, and giving way to the Prelude’s first long, lyrical phrase, played by the cello section. 


Prelude to Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

If embedded audio doesn’t work, please try this direct link: Wagner “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde” excerpt (opens in a new tab)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Juraj Valcuha, conductor
Heinz Hall, February 2016

Wagner would have an inestimable influence on Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, all of whom would carry the torch of harmonic suspension, and piercing harmonies.  

There are countless other examples in the classical music canon where this piercing harmony can be found. You’ll also hear it in popular music, and in film scores. Max Steiner’s majestic main theme from “Gone With The Wind” is one example. I invite you all to find as many instances as you can. 

For me, these five excerpts comprise less a deserted-island-list endeavor than a desperate search for beauty amid what we have endured these past several months. It is also an expression of appreciation and veneration of my colleagues, who, up until last March, rendered these achingly beautiful moments with a passionate commitment day in and day out. 

We promise to do so again soon. 

Special thanks to Harold Chambers for providing the PSO audio excerpts.