Towards an Absolute Pitch Understanding of Classical Form
James Mackay, Loyola University
'Composers compose with notes, not keys,' one of my professors liked to
claim. And indeed, a single note, strikingly introduced and then
extensively developed, can play a major role in shaping a work's tonal
rhetoric. In this paper, I explore an absolute pitch conception of musical
space in Classical style (where retention of, and departure from a single
pitch become important to a work's inner logic), and trace the progression
and expansion of this technique from Haydn through Schubert.
The ability of anomalous pitches to influence a work's tonal shape is
contingent upon there being a conventional, expected tonal plan against
which to juxtapose. Haydn was the first to explore playing individual
pitches against the standard I-V-I departure-return model that is typical
of Classical works. Such pitches could be used to intensify a work's
expected tonal direction, or to create a musical subplot that runs parallel
to the conventional tonal unfolding. If a pitch is unconventional in its
immediate context, the role of the composition might be to create a
suitable rationale for it as the work unfolds.
We will explore three examples of this technique: the finale of Haydn's
Piano Trio in C major (Hob. XV: 27), the opening movement of Beethoven's
'Ghost' Trio (Opus 70, no.1) and the outer movements of Schubert's Sonata
in B-Flat, D. 960. It is tempting to examine form or harmony to discern a
composition's logic. However, analytical insights may be obtained by
exploring the introduction, recurrence and retention of important pitches.
Pitch-class invariance plays a vital role in certain works as far back as
Haydn: though far from the whole story, it is an oft-neglected but
important component of a work's musical rhetoric.