The Base Level of Dissonance in Satie's First "Nocturne" as Determined by Hindemith's System of Chord Labeling

Alexander Amato, University of North Texas

In The Craft of Musical Composition, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) devised a system for determining the level of tension in vertical sonorities based on their intervallic content while still respecting the notion of consonance and dissonance that guided the composition of works in earlier periods. Applying that system to his own compositions and those of others, he coined the term "harmonic fluctuation," where the degree of tension in a musical passage begins at the level of a stable tertian harmony and gradually increases to a maximum level of dissonance and then returns to stability. Few analyses of early twentieth century works have employed this method where it would be useful in understanding their harmonic coherence.

In the first of his Nocturnes for solo piano, composed in 1919, Erik Satie (1866-1925) tends to maintain a higher level of dissonance than in strictly tonal works by frequently using significantly dissonant sonorities as if they were consonant and, in some cases, by waiting until cadences to use sustained major triads lacking dissonant intervals. This relates to Hindemith's harmonic fluctuation because these triads of the final cadence could be heard as the aforementioned return to stability, despite the works' beginnings with dissonance. This study will employ Hindemith's system of calculating sonorities' levels of tension to show how Erik Satie conditions the listener's ear into hearing dissonant chords as relatively consonant in his Nocturnes, nos. 1-3.