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Harmony in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven: a comparison

2675 Views 29 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  Amadea
Hi! This is not a Bach vs Mozart vs Beethoven thread. I do not care who's the greatest composer in your mind or if you find one or two or all three overrated. I am a classic music lover who has some basic knowledge of music theory (I have a license in solfeggio taken when I was in highschool). I am trying to study this composers by myself with the help of some books and I would like to understand how is the harmony in them in comparison. I would like the opinions of those who have studied their scores, not casual listeners. Also, during my research, I've heard Glenn Gould (which I know hates Mozart) saying that Bach is more of a melodist, Mozart is more of a harmonist (I thought the opposite). Also, Bernstein said about Beethoven he is not a great harmonist and "uses harmonies a child could write" (Bernstein considers Beethoven the greatest, he was probably exaggerating and meant he uses simple harmonies or simple harmonies in comparison to others). Do you agree with these statements? Yes? No? Why? Can you provide examples? In my understanding, Bach is very complex, Mozart less complex than Bach (right?) but fools the listener, you hear things which sound "simple" to the ear, but Mozart is trolling you because if you look at the score, the way he uses dissonance and chromaticism is not simple at all (right?), and Beethoven, well I don't know, I thought his harmonies were more advanced than the classic composers (Mozart, Haydn etc.) but it might be just an impression caused by the use of minor key and more drama (so Mozart is more complex, or not?). Sorry for my english.
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Beethoven's strength was in form and drama, building excitement and using time as a leverage, using dynamic contrasts for expression, developing (multiple) themes in unpredictable and complex ways.

If we are looking at just harmony itself in my opinion Beethoven wasn't a master to the same degree as Bach or Mozart, (or Brahms for that matter).

Wagner was very innovative with harmony but over all I don't consider him a master of harmony to the same extent of Brahms, if we are looking at aspects of harmony like counterpoint and how the harmony relates to form.

The greatest masters of harmony of the 20th century in my opinion were Debussy and Ravel.
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Where do you see Beeethoven deficient as a harmonist? It's true that he wasn't fond of chromaticism, but he was certainly capable of writing any sort of harmony his conceptions required, and his harmonic schemes are essential to his structures. His suspicious attitude toward the new Romantic fascination with chromaticism had to do, I suspect, with his sense of structural economy.
Its just the way I hear his music. When I saw hammeredklavier post the quote from Brahms stating that true dissonance is found in Bach and Mozart, not so much Beethoven, I felt vindicated in my belief, because that is what I hear as well, and obviously to some extent Bernstein felt this way too. So I don't think it is just in my head, there is something to it. That said obviously Beethoven had other strengths (he was after all Bernstein's favorite composer), he is widely regarded as among the greatest composers, and his music has been incredibly successful. Whether his harmonic language was exactly as he wanted it, or just the best he could do, I think is speculation.

This I don't even begin to understand. The chief thing that makes Wagner a master of harmony is not merely a heavy use of chromaticism - he's only doing that some of the time anyway - but his ability to see how an unprecedented degree of harmonic suspension and modulatory freedom can be sustained coherently and used to build long spans of great tension and expressive power. And if you've ever sat at the piano and played through the scores of Tristan, Meistersinger or Parsifal you've had a superb demonstration of voice-leading as polyphony. Nothing in Brahms approaches Wagner's mature works in harmonic variety and complexity. That's obvious on a superficial hearing, but it's his powerful, intuitive yet carefully calculated control of form that enabled Wagner to create a stunning arch like the third act of Tristan. I don't see any point in comparing this to what Brahms was doing with his neo-Classical aesthetic.
I will say I feel that Wagner is simply outstanding in some ways from a harmonic standpoint. If you want to call him on par with the greatest harmonic masters I respect your view, and maybe you're right. There are elements of Wagner, that I would best describe as dazzling, shimmering and attractive in ways that Brahms music is not. However I see these elements as essentially what I would describe as effects more so than the strong substantive harmonic forms that Brahms created. Previously in another thread I made the point that fools gold can seem to shine brighter than real gold, and I compared Brahms to gold. Calling Wagner fools gold goes too far as criticism, but in my view his strengths are more closely related to surface effects more so than the depth we hear in Brahms best compositions. They are very different composers, I stand in awe of some of the moments of Wagner's compositions, which were unprecedented and brilliant, but if we look at their work as a whole I still feel Brahms was the better composer over all, and I find his use of harmony more subtle and often emotionally complex in ways Wagner is not. We tend to know what Wagner is trying to evoke through his use of harmony, (this may be in part due to the limited amount of forms Wagner composed in and the fact that in the form he primarily chose the music is following along with a narrative) with Brahms I find the effect is often more complex, layered and multi-faceted.
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