My wife works for Harvard, so we get Harvard magazine in the mail, sixty or so glossy pages recounting fabulous adventures of faculty and alumni. Anyway, this month brings a half-page of pithy remarks culled from a confab with John Adams, who picked up the Harvard Medal for the Arts this year, including this one:
Harmony is where the psychological meaning of the music is. [Twelve-tone composers] wrote atonal music, and at the same time Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin were having a fine time with harmony.
Here’s a fun game: try and come up with a context in which this out-of-context remark doesn’t imply that, say, the Berg Violin Concerto contains no harmony. (Or the Lyric Suite, for that matter.) How about Martin? Henze? I’m spending the week walking orchestration students through a section of Dallapiccola’s Variazioni that’s nothing but harmonic progressions. And those are just the composers, who, off the top of my head, seem to put their primary emphasis on harmony. Triads are nice, but there’s more than one way to meaningfully stack up those notes.