Sunday, 6 December 2009

Coercive and disruptive harmony: an analysis of Ravel

I did this on the 'Forlane' of Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin.

What's puzzling me is the nature of his exotic harmony. The melody is memorable, or at least seems it. It is very modal, and clearly centred on E. The middle section prolongs in the same way that any classical binary movement would (taking to new places, harmonic exhoration, disruption, etc). I think the E is prolonged through harmonic disruptions right from the start. The cadences are more harmonically coercive. What's the difference?

  • A coercion is about enforcing a disposition: a regular rhythm, a clear harmony, a repeated motif.
  • A disruption suggests extending/enlarging a disposition: A new motif, a strange harmony, an unexpected rhythm.
  • An exhortation transforms a disposition: a new key, new theme, new mood


Ted Greenwald said...

Hello Mark,
Thanks for your provocative remarks. I've been puzzling over the Forlane's harmony for some time, and it's something of a relief to find that I'm not alone. FWIW Nancy Brickard, who edited the Alfred edition I own, makes the interesting observation that Ravel "compressed the entire chromatic scale into the left-hand chords in the first measures of the piece, with the exception of D natural. This D natural appears as the last note in the right hand and serves as a modal leading tone to the E minor tonic harmony in measure 5."

lkaiser said...

Honestly why even write in in e minor. take a lesson from Ives and use no key signature and make all of our lives easier.... that said. It is all augmented, half diminished. minor/major sevenths... and the kicker... when he switches for about 8 bars with repeat to E Major you get a MINOR V. fucking brilliant.. and it works because obviously he was hearing a cosmic forestrial dance... so that's why he's Ravel. One of those things you don't try to explain you just enjoy... like a fine fine Burgundy. With Ravel maybe a lovely smoky Morgon or Brouilly yeah?

Janman said...

Thanks for the ideas! This piece has been in my head for quite a while and I am still grapling with the scalar identity. It also sounded to me that he fills out the palette chromatically in very clever way. What throws me off from the diminshed idea is that he seems so emphatically stating a 'regular' sense of V dominance by using B all over the place. So I am at E Harmonic minor mixed with augmented E and augmented F (and indeed a notable lack of d natural).

Mark William Johnson said...

Thanks - I'm glad you found it thought-provoking. It is fascinating. There are, as you say, clear moments where there is a sense of V dominance. What does that do? It suggests that we're about to be taken 'home' - but he manages to make 'home' a very 'uncanny' place.

I'd like to look at this again - I may change my mind. I've become very interested in D'Indy's theory of harmony, and I think the functional harmonic moves that Ravel make can be usefully interpreted through D'Indy's theory (see and

The Shannon connection I think is significant in the second post. Home (the tonic chord) is meaningful to us. How does it's meaningfulness arise? How are our expectations manipulated? What's actually in your "E Harmonic minor mixed with augmented E and augmented F" that relates to our expectations?

Anonymous said...

Why did you play C sharp minor 7 instead C sharp 7 (bar 10th? Also are you playing an f natural in the second voice, bar 3rd. Anyway, congratulations for your analysis. I am very fascinated for the last section s chords, in the last pages, when the key goes back to e minor.

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