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.