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Harmonic Anchors: Phrasing from the Bottom Up

Leela Breithaupt | July 2017

    As treble instrumentalists, flutists strive to play beautifully arched lines creating long elegant phrases. While this is an important melodic phrasing goal, another equally essential and often neglected phrasing concept is organizing the phrase based on the harmonic function of the melody.

Horizontal vs. Vertical
    There are two approaches to phrasing: melodic and harmonic. Melodic phrasing looks at the shape of the horizontal melody line to determine the beginning, high point, and ending of a phrase. Harmonic phrasing considers the chord progressions and harmonic tension and resolution to shape the phrase. Of course, there is another possibility: combining both melodic and harmonic and finding the connections between them.

Water Lilies on a Pond

    A good analogy for this method of phrasing is to imagine a pond with water lilies floating on the surface. The pond represents the piece of music. The leaves and flowers of the water lilies represent the important notes of the melodic line. Although they look like they are free floating, each lily pad has a stem connecting it to the soil of the floor of the pond. The stem represents the harmony, and the floor of the pond represents the bass line. Imagine gliding across the water and landing briefly on each water lily. This gives the phrase an entirely different feel than if you were only to skim across the water without ever landing. This roots the melody firmly in the harmony

Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Consonance vs. Dissonance

    Historically, intervals had various qualities or characteristics. Octaves and fifths are pure intervals and were used for stability and harmonic peacefulness. Thirds and sixths were also considered to have a pleasing nature and were often used in sequences. Fourths, which modern ears hear as consonant, were historically perceived as dissonant and needed to resolve to a consonant third (as in a 4-3 suspension).

    Seconds and sevenths were also dissonant and had their own rules of resolution. Lastly, there is the diminished fifth or tritone. This interval was known as the devil’s interval, which gives a glimpse into the importance that people historically put on the emotional power of intervals in music. Left unresolved, a tritone was said to drive the listener mad.

    Baroque composers played with these intervals creating tension and release in their music. They manipulated and crafted complicated puzzles full of dissonant intervals and their resolutions. For the performer, the road map of how to navigate harmonic tension and release is clearly written out in the format of figured bass.

Figured Bass
    Figured bass is a system of notating intervals above a bass line and was the method for telling the continuo player (harpsichord, theorbo, lute, cello, viola da gamba) what harmony to play during the Baroque era. There were no piano parts with the chords already written out for the performer. Part of the art of playing continuo is interpreting the figures and deciding which chord to play and what voice leading to use. These choices have both harmonic and emotive implications. Today, as in the Baroque period, two performances of the same piece could sound drastically different depending on the decisions that the continuo player makes.
    In figured bass, the numbers below the bass line refer to the interval above the bass that the note should be played. For example, in A major, if there is a C# in the bass with a 6 underneath, then the harmony must include an A. The 3 (E) is implied even if it is not expressly written out. So, a 6 below a note would indicate a first inversion chord. Figured bass conventions omitted notes that were clearly implied.
    Other common symbols that you will come across in figured bass are a slash through a note. This indicates raising the note in the figure by a half step. For example, 6/ under an E would mean to play a C#. This was useful in secondary dominant chords and modulations. Other ways of notating chromatic alterations are with a sharp, flat or natural sign. If a # has no number after it, it typically refers to a #3 above the bass.

    For the flutist, learning to read figured bass is essential to convincingly portraying the dramatic tension and release inherent in Baroque pieces. Learning to internalize the function of melodic notes and to play the melody expressively with and against the bass line leads to a higher level of phrasing and expression, and ultimately more musically moving performances.
    Reading figured bass is easy to learn. Once you have learned the basics and can begin to think in this harmonic language, you will see how useful this hands-on method of expressing harmony is in your own performances. After all, if you were playing the top note of a tritone against the bass line, and you played it as sweetly and innocently as you might play a third, then you have lost a great opportunity for expression.

    Writings from the Baroque period, such as Johann Matteson’s Der Volkommene Kappelmeister (1739), indicate that composers and musicians from that time period were primarily concerned with affekt and moving the passions of the listeners. Affekt is a German word that refers to the emotive quality of music. Known as the Doctrine of Affections, composers and performers (often the same person in the Baroque) tried to affect the listener’s emotional state. This could be done in many ways, but harmony was arguably the most important. Even the choice of tonality was important for the character of the piece. For example, the key of D major was considered to have a sharp and stubborn quality for noisy, or warlike movements, while E minor was considered pensive, profound, expressive and sad.

Putting It Into Practice
    There are many ways to hear and understand the harmonic function of melody notes. You could play the bass and melody notes on a keyboard, or have someone sing the bass line while you play, as Wilbert Hazelzet suggests. Kate Clark, a Baroque flute teacher at the Royal Conservatory at the Hague, teaches her students to play each bass note just before each melody note as a kind of grace note. Doing this, they can have the bass note in their ears while they play the melody. All of these methods help the performer to know which notes to lean on, pushing against the bass, and which notes to relax on. For a solo piece without a bass line, make one up. For example, begin with the Telemann Fantasies and write out a possible bass line for each one. Telemann’s music is so well and logically crafted that this is not too difficult a task.

Breathing Implications
    Playing the melody while reading the bass notes also gives you a wealth of information on where to breathe and where not to breathe. Breathing between the resolution of dissonances to consonances destroys the harmonic tension and so opportunities for expression are lost.
A wonderful example of the challenge of recognizing dissonances can be found in J.S. Bach’s aria, Aus Liebe, from the St. Matthew Passion. Here, there are a chain of tied-over notes indicating suspensions. If the peformer plays the melody without regard for the harmonies in the oboes da caccia, the result is rather like a floating head without the grounding of a body with feet. By looking at the score, a flutist can take the dissonances into consideration and make informed choices about where to breathe and avoid unknowingly ruining the tension. A good exercise to try is to play the aria from the score without breathing on dissonances. You will find that the phrases, as so often in Bach, are just a little longer than comfortable.

Play from the score

    Harmony anchors music and provides its foundation. The tension between dissonant notes and the subsequent resolution to consonance is the main harmonic building block of the entire repertoire. Regardless of the composition or time period, to squeeze out all the emotive possibilities of a piece, learn by playing from the score, not just the flute part. This works as well for Prokofiev as for Bach. If your concept of each piece is informed and includes the harmonies and their melodic implications, your playing will have a much greater impact on the audience.