Last time, we learnt a compositional device by looking at a piece by Bach. This time, we are looking at a piece by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, in particular, the incredible ‘The Death of Åse’ from the Peer Gynt suite. This suite is most famous for ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, as heard in the Alton Towers commercials, and ‘Morning Mood’, as heard in every single TV show ever where someone wakes up in the morning and they needed music (yes, it’s a bit cliché and overused by now, but that’s not really Grieg’s fault I suppose, and it’s still a good piece of music). But anyway, in my opinion ‘The Death of Åse’ is one of the most beautiful pieces not just in the whole suite, but in the whole of the Western classical canon.
The compositional device Grieg uses in this piece that we are examining today is the use of chromatic harmony under an already-established melody.
Ok, so what do I mean by this? Let’s unpack that a little.
The piece begins with a very slow, simple melody in B minor (see the opening two bars below). It’s just three rising notes, F# – B – C#. The harmony is also very simple, a B minor chord going to an F# major, which is your standard I – V chord progression, or tonic – dominant. This is one of the most commonly used chord progressions in all of music, so nothing particularly out of the ordinary here. The tune progresses in a similarly straightforward way; the melody we just heard repeats, moves through two bars of new material, also very simple, and we get back to our opening theme again.
This is where the interest comes in. We hear the melody repeated in exactly the same way, note for note, but now the harmony is different. Actually very different. A really interesting chord is introduced when we hit the C #, where last time we heard the F # major. This time we have a G 7 sharp 11 chord.
Ok, to be perfectly pedantic, this is technically a French sixth chord, as G 7 would have an F natural, not an E sharp. But they are enharmonically the same (enharmonic means that it sounds the same, even if it is written or functions differently), and sharp 11 chords may be more familiar to people, especially if they have a background in jazz, so it’s easier to call it that.
So now you’re probably wondering what a French sixth chord is. Well, unlike a dominant 7 sharp 11 chord, which a composer could feel free to place anywhere within the key that they like, a French sixth is much more specific. Probably the easiest way of thinking about it is (and this isn’t too easy…) to build a minor seven chord on the supertonic position, put it in second inversion with the fifth in the bass and the third on the top in the soprano. Then, you flatten the bottom (the fifth) and sharpen the top (the third).
Found that a little confusing? If you would like to get a better understanding of augmented sixth chords, check out our Harmony Courses here.
Anyway, the point is, whatever you call it, this progression works brilliantly. This chord is dissonant, full of tension and completely unexpected, but its unexpectedness is alleviated because it is anchored to a melody line we have already heard and are thus now used to. Our expectations are subverted, but not to the point where we are thrown off-kilter.
As I talked about in the last composition lesson looking at Bach, music is best when it isn’t completely predictable, nor completely un-predictable. The listener needs to be able to follow your music, but not predict everywhere it is going to go. What Grieg does here in introducing a chromatic chord underneath an already established melody is one way of adding rich harmonic interest to your compositions, without completely befuddling the listener.
Make sure you try out using this compositional trick next time you are writing music.
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