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Yale University Department of Music

Voice Leading and Chromatic Harmony in the Music of Chopin

Author(s): Richard S. Parks
Source: Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 189-214
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the Yale University Department of Music
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Richard S. Parks

An interesting aspect of Chopin's compositional technique

is his use of altered chords in passages where they do not
appear to function in their conventional harmonic roles
such as applied dominants, leading-tone chords, and so on.'
Gerald Abraham was probably the first scholar to have examined this aspect of the composer's style in systematic detail,
and a continuing discussion of various passages incorporating
successions of altered chords is interspersed throughout his
monograph on Chopin.2 He coined the term "harmonic
parenthesis" as a descriptive label for such passages, first
using it in the foreword to his book (p. vii), in reference to
an earlier writer's description of a passage in the Nocturne,
opus 9, no. 2, bar 12. That earlier writer, Henry Hadow,
expressed confusion over the passage, which appears to
modulate, but ends in the same key in which it begins.3
Hadow observed that the passage sounds logical despite its
enigmatic appearance. Abraham stated that it is an example
of "harmonic parenthesis" and added that the performer
must convey the parenthetic effect. Since Abraham's discussion of the phenomenon serves as a point of departure

for the present study, I shall summarize his main ideas

before proceeding further.4
Abraham cited passages similar to that of opus 9, no. 2 in
early works of Chopin in which the main constituent is the
fully diminished seventh chord, stating that only the initial
and last seventh chords in the succession can be related to a
key; thus, in his words, "there has been a temporary suspension of the principle of tonality."'
He proceeded to cite examples from the works of Haydn,
Jomelli, and Gluck which are similar to those of Chopin but
less highly figurated so that they would be easier to relate
to their tonal contexts. In this way he provided some insight
into the origin of this technique of Chopin.
Somewhat later, he asserted that Chopin thinks "in terms
of more advanced, chromatically complicated harmony and
[employs] the free weaving in of passing notes, ornaments,
and even ornaments-to-ornaments (e.g., acciaccatura before
notes that are themselves not true harmony notes)."6
Abraham also discussed the kinds of altered chords employed by Chopin and some specific characteristics of how
they are handled. He said that Chopin's harmony is primarily
diatonic, but is chromatically embellished. This observation,
as well as that concerning the use of ornaments, accounts
for some of the difficulty in ascribing function in the passages with which we are concerned. Chromatic ornamentation complicates analysis, as does the composer's occasional
use of chord spellings which conflict with their function.
Non-harmonic tones do not always resolve in the same voice
(a truly harmonic conception) and are often retained for
long periods, so that at the point of resolution, the circumstances of origin may be forgotten.
Abraham alluded to a space-filling function for the chords
in these kinds of passages, although he does not use this
terminology. He recognized, in a reduction of a passage from
the Etude, opus 10, no. 8, such a chromatic passage as occurring between a structural chord present in two positions,
consisting of separate voices moving by half steps from the
point of origin to the goal. The resultant chords are coincidental, though he observed a tendency towards fully diminished seventh chords and dominant seventh sonorities. He
called these sonorities "transitional" chords.7

Abraham also observed patterns in the movements of these

chords, saying that in the composer's last period, which
Abraham defines as 1841-49, Chopin, "having accustomed
himself to successions of dominant sevenths a semitone
apart and a fifth apart . . . now writes them in whole-tone
."8 He cites, as an example, bars 72-75 of
the F minor Ballade, opus 52.
Abraham's discussion is illuminating. However, his explanation is incomplete since he does not go far beyond
isolating the passages in question and describing their harmonic constituents. In those instances where he ventures
further, his terminology becomes obscure. For example, he
refers to the chromatic movement within these "parenthetic"
passages as "semi-tonal side-slips;" occasionally he asserts
that such passages are atonal.'
The problem is perhaps one of perspective. Abraham
appears to rely heavily upon harmony as a means of accounting for these kinds of passages. But except for secondary
dominants and leading-tone relationships, which occur often
enough but usually account for only a portion of a given
example, a look at the vertical dimension yields only an
identification of a given sonority by quality-French augmented sixth, dominant seventh sonority, or whatever. The
logic of these passages with regard to tonal organization is
to be found in the melodic dimension; their function may be
explained by voice leading.
A number of passages of the sort that Abraham describes
are reproduced below, examined in some detail with a view
toward establishing, in each case, a connection between the
excerpt and the tonal design of the piece in which it is
found. The examples selected include the following works:
Mazurka, opus 6, no. 1 (1832); Prelude, opus 28, no. 4
(1838); Nocturne, opus 9, no. 2 (1832); Etude, opus 10,
no. 3 (1832); and Fantasy, opus 49 (1841)."o
These pieces were selected because they furnish examples of
this technique in a group of pieces which are diverse in proportions and character, and which also span a substantial portion
of the composer's career. The Nocturne, opus 9, no. 2 is Abraham's first example and is among those works cited by Henry
Hadow (see n. 3). It is also the example provided by Rey M.
Longyear in his brief discussion of this principle."

The examples selected may be divided into two categories:

those which involve voice-leading movement between two
different chords, of which the Mazurka,opus 6, no. 1 and the
Prelude, opus 28, no. 4 provide examples, and those involving
movement around or within appearances of the same chord.
The remainingexamples all belong to the latter category.
Mazurka, F-sharp minor, opus 6, no. 1, bars 5-8 (Example 1)
This four-measure passage reappears in bars 29-32 and
61-64. The basic harmonic motion begins on the tonic chord
of bar 2, moves to the mediant chord of bar 4, on the way to
the dominant seventh chord of bar 9, reaching the tonic
again in bar 10 (Figure la). Both the initial tonic and mediant chords are preceded by their applied dominants in bars
1 and 3 (Figure lb). It is the movement from the mediant
to the dominant seventh chord which is of special significance. First, the bass ascends an octave in bar 4, thereby
increasing the distance to the dominant by inverting an
ascending third to a descending sixth. The soprano also ascends, to the third of the mediant chord, so that it, too, has
the interval of a sixth to fill in order to arrive at E-sharp,
the leading-tone of the dominant seventh chord, in bar 9.12
The composer then fills the space in both outer parts by
descending in half steps through bars 5-8. The passage is
highly embellished with neighbor notes and passing tones
as well as skips between various chord members (Figure 1c).
The inner parts follow the descending scheme in bars 5-9,
but only after the tenor note of bar 4, E, divides into two
separate voices. The only melodic whole step in any of the
voices occurs in the tenor part of bar 5, D-sharp to C-sharp.
The resultant sonorities are of three kinds: fully diminished
sevenths, half diminished sevenths, and dominant seventh
sonorities. The logic of this succession of sonorities is not
harmonic; it is to be found in voice leading, as each voice
descends chromatically from a member of the mediant triad
to a member of the dominant seventh chord.
Prelude, E minor, opus 28, no. 4, bars 1-12 (Example 2)
This well-known piece provides a second illustration of
chromatic harmonies generated by voice leading between two

diatonic chords. The passage consists of a descending spacefilling motion, from a tonic chord in first inversion to a
dominant seventh chord in root position supporting a stepwise
descent in the soprano (Figure 2a). Bar 12 marks a point of
interruption, after which the motion begins over again. The
space between the inverted tonic and the dominant seventh
chord is filled by descending stepwise motion-for the most
part chromatic-in the lower three voices (Figure 2b). Harmonic interest is increased and the passage lengthened by
staggering the points of descent in the different voices
(Figure 2c). The soprano, bass, and tenor are also elaborated
by neighbor-note motion.
The sonorities which result from the confluence of voices
include minor triads, minor-minor seventh chords, dominant
seventh sonorities, half and fully diminished seventh chords,
French augmented sixth and major-majorseventh sonorities,
and several which are not so easily categorized but which
might be labeled seventh chords with "added" notes. Though
the succession of sonorities is fascinating, one searches in
vain for an explanation through harmony. The guiding
principle here is to be found in the voice leading, within the
diatonic structure provided by the tonic and dominant chords
of E-minor.
Several editions notate the E-flat of bars 2-3 as D-sharp.
The editors of the collected edition make this change, with
the explanation that "in these bars, we have changed the
el-flat of the original notation into dl-sharp. The chord in
this second bar is a chord of the dominant seventh in E minor
This change is clearly contrary
to the voice leading at this point, which, since it is descending, logically demands an E-flat-as Chopin himself evidently
understood. The same reasoning obtains in bars 14-15 with
regard to the E-flat, and also in bar 15 to the A-flat of the
tenor, which is sometimes notated as G-sharp.
Nocturne, E-flat major, opus 9, no. 2, bar 12 (Example 3)
This is the example cited by Hadow, Abraham, and Longyear.14 The passage occurs in bar 12 and again in bar 20.
The dominant chord is prolonged at the end of bar 12 by
employing the chord in two positions: first as a triad with



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the root in the soprano, and then as a seventh chord with

the third in the soprano (Figure 3a). The space between the
root and third in the soprano is filled with ascending whole
and half steps (Figure 3b). At the same time, the bass
descends stepwise to the root of the applied dominant, F,
and returns to B-flat by leap. The inner parts also move,
primarily stepwise, with two additional parts added at the
end to intensify the passage (Figure 3c). The individual
sonorities which result from this voice-leading activity are
dominant seventh sonorities with the single exception of one
major triad. But even though some roots are fifth related, the
true role of these sonorities is melodic and space-fillingbetween the two positions of the dominant chord, and its
applied dominant-and the chords which result are coincidental.
Schenker shows the larger context of this passage as occurring at the point of division of a structural progression.'s
Fantasy, F minor, opus 49, bars 268-76 (Example 4)
Bars 268-76 of the Fantasy provide a somewhat longer
example than those just examined. Similar material occurs
earlier in the piece, at bars 101-09, but there it is a perfect
fifth higher. The two passages are identical except for register,
and the decision to employ the latter version in this illustration was made only because it is easier to read at the lower
pitch level.
The nine-measure passage begins and closes on A-flat
major triads-the mediant of F minor. The third is in the
soprano in both chords, but the register of the second chord
is an octave higher than in the first (Figure 4a). The intervening measures permit the octave to be filled by a chromatic
ascent in the right hand. The line is interrupted at D-natural
and at E-natural, with neighbor-note motion around those
notes (Figure 4b). The bass line descends chromatically
from A-flat to F-sharp, the latter an applied dominant to a
B-major chord, which serves as a neighbor note to B-flat.
The bass again descends chromatically, from B-flat to A-flat.
A-flat functions as a dominant to D-flat, itself a neighbor
to C. Once more the process is repeated, with a descent to
B-flat, the applied dominant of E-flat, which is the dominant


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of the prolonged A-flat triad. Thus the bass ascends from the
root of the A-flat triad, through B-flat to the third, C, and
the fifth, E-flat, before returning to the root.
The inner voices combine with the bass and soprano to
form various sonorities including major triads (one of which
[m. 275, beats 1 and 2] is spelled enharmonically in a
manner consistent with the voice leading at this point),
complete dominant seventh sonorities, and French.augmented
sixth sonorities (Figure 4c). There are several complete
dominant sevenths, each containing an added note which
derives from an accented passing tone equivalent to the
raised fifth (marked with asterisks in Figure 4c).
The goals of two of the applied dominants in bars 269
and 271 are chords whose outer voices function as neighbor
notes to those which follow. The sonority which occurs at
these points is the French augmented sixth chord and the
voice leading follows conventional practice with the augmented sixth resolving out to the octave.16
Etude, E major, opus 10, no.3, bars 21-54 (Example 5)
This is the most complex example quoted and it is also the
longest. The thirty-three bar passage occurs at the midpoint
of the piece, and the material is used only once. The passage
may be divided into three overlapping sections, of which the
first comprises bar 21, beat two, through bar 42, first beat.
This portion prolongs the dominant seventh chord harmonically, through its applied dominant on F-sharp (Figure 5a)."7
Still another applied dominant may be found within the
F-sharp chord, in bar 38 (Figure 5b). Bars 22-38 reveal a
stepwise ascent in the bass, from F-sharp to C-sharp-the
latter implied (Figure 5c). This is accompanied, in the
soprano, by ascending stepwise movement made possible
when the soprano voice descends a seventh into an inner
part of the F-sharp chord in bars 22-23 (Figure 5d). The
whole is elaborated by neighboring and passing motion
throughout bars 22-37, for which bars 22-23 are typical
(Figure 5e: the sketch is abbreviated in order to save space
here). Repetition in bars 23-24 and 28-29 also contributes
to the temporal span.
Bars 38-41 contain a highly chromatic passage. These






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measures correspond with the arrival in the bass on the

implied C-sharp, which coincides with the neighbor note,
E-sharp, in the soprano (Figures 5c-e). The series of chromatic chords serves to prolong the neighbor note motion
around the E-sharp in the soprano, ascending to G-natural,
then descending stepwise chromatically to E-sharp. This is
complicated by octave shifts filled symmetrically through
arpeggiated augmented triads, with neighbor notes to each
chord member. In addition, the inner voice of bars 39-41
-C-sharp, C-natural, B-natural-temporarily dominates by
ascending above the soprano, while the left hand shows an
exchange of registers which places the inner part below the
bass at times. The chords which result are all fully diminished seventh chords.
The second portion of this passage consists of bars 42-46,
beat 1, and employs the dominant triad stated three times
with different soprano notes, prolonged by neighbor-note
motion (Figures 5f-h). The dominant chords are arpeggiated
through several octaves.
The last part of the passage, consisting of bars 46-54,
begins and ends on the dominant. In bar 46, the soprano
skips up, from the fifth of the chord to the root, B, and then
descends stepwise for an octave (Figure 5j). This descent is
interrupted twice, in bars 47-48 and 49-50. At the same
time, the bass line skips from the root of the dominant, B,
to the lowered third, D-natural; this is a result of modal
mixing. The bass then descends stepwise through the interval
of a seventh to E. Like the soprano line, the bass descent is
interrupted twice. The outer parts move together in sixths,
and are supported by chords descending stepwise in inner
parts. These chords consist of fully diminished seventh
chords for bars 46-52 (Figure 5k). In bar 53, the supporting
sonority is that of the French augmented sixth chord, which
moves to a half diminished seventh sonority-a supertonic
seventh chord from the parallel minor-which moves to the
dominant. The entire passage, like those preceding, is subjected to extensive arpeggio figuration which obscures any
sense of line in the inner parts, though the outer voices are
easily heard (Figure 5m).
Taken together, the three overlapping passages which
comprise bars 34-54 serve to prolong the dominant of

E major, producing, in effect, an extended half cadence

(Figure 5n). Bars 54-61, not included in this illustration,
further prolong the dominant with its tonic six-four chord.
They also provide a thematic transition preparing for the
return of the material which opens the piece. The greatly
prolonged dominant finally resolves to the tonic in bar 62.
The foregoing examples constitute a very limited sample
of this kind of chromatic prolongation, but they are generally
typical of those encountered elsewhere in Chopin. Some
other examples may be found in the Mazurka, opus 30,
no. 4, bars 128-31, the Mazurka,opus 67, no. 2, bars 21-24,
the Ballade, opus 52, bars 72-75, and the Mazurka, opus 7,
no. 2, bars 17-25.
All of the passages examined above share important
characteristics. In each case, the effect is to prolong and thus
emphasize the chords which frame the passages. These chords
may be different, as in opus 6, no. 1, or the same, as in the
remaining examples. The chords so emphasized are always of
primary significance in the tonal scheme. In opus 6, no. 1,
the two chords are the mediant and the dominant, which
complete a tonal journey begun on the tonic, so that the
members of the tonic triad are emphasized in the bass,
supported by their own chords. In somewhat similar fashion,
most of opus 28, no. 1 prolongs movement between the tonic
and dominant. The passage in opus 49 prolongs the mediant,
while those of opus 9, no. 2 and opus 10, no. 3 prolong the
dominant. The chromatic chords which the passages contain
are coincidental, that is, they result from the coincidence of
moving parts whose rationale is primarily melodic rather
than harmonic; thus the chords are not "functional" and do
not require resolution to their conventional harmonic goals.
Since their purpose is melodic, the ear must follow the lines
in order to understand their role vis a vis the tonal scheme
in each case. Heard from this perspective, the passages are
emphatically tonal.
The particular sonorities employed are not randomly
selected. In addition to major triads, they include half and
fully diminished seventh chords, dominant seventh sonorities,
French augmented sixth sonorities, and a few unusual constructions. Most of these chromatic sonorities were an
integral part of the harmonic vocabulary of the period. In

addition, they are sonorities which are complex and somewhat

ambiguous in sound. All are frequently encountered as
altered chords as well as diatonic harmonies. Those which
appear most often-the fully diminished seventh and dominant seventh sonorities-are susceptible to enharmonic
interpretation and depend upon resolution for their functional
definition. This characteristic of functional ambiguity makes
them ideal choices for sonorities which serve a supporting
and secondary role in passages which are primarily melodic
in origin.
1. I am indebted to several theorists, and especially to Heinrich
Schenker, for both the analytical procedure employed in this
study and for the theoretical premise from which it proceeds.
The idea that voice leading may serve as a determinant of chord
successions is an intergral part of Schenker's theory of tonal
organization. Discussions in English of this principle will be found
in Felix Salzer, Structural Hearing (New York: Charles Boni,
1952, corrected reprint ed., New York: Dover Publications, 1962),
pp. 102, 135-42, and in the chapter on Wagner in Adele Katz,
Challenge to Musical Tradition (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1945,
reprint ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), pp. 194-247.
2. Gerald Abarham, Chopin's Musical Style (London: Oxford University Press, 1939).
3. Henry Hadow, Studies in Modern Music, 2nd series, 3rd ed. (London: Seeley & Co., Ltd., 1900), pp. 162-63. The quotation Abraham cites appears in the context of a discussion of Chopin's use of
parallel sonorities, with special reference to the Mazurka, opus 30,
no. 4. Hadow's explanation of these parallel chords alludes to the
practice of doubling in orchestration. He states that "the law of
consecutives is not held to be broken if in an orchestral piece a
violin phrase is doubled by the violoncello or the bassoon. . . . So
in these disputed passages of Chopin. They are not really harmonic
at all, they lie in the same plane as the melody, and, for their
support, imply a separate and distinct scheme of chords, which the
ear can always understand for itself." The quotation Abraham cites
follows this remark.
4. Abraham, Chopin's Musical Style, pp. 19-20, 73, 77-80, 82-83,
86-88, 98-99.
5. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
6. Ibid., p. 73.
7. Ibid., p. 83.


8. Ibid., pp. 98-99.

9. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
10. The dates of composition and publication are further detailed in
Maurice J. E. Brown, Chopin: An Index of His Works in Chronological Order, 2nd ed. rev. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972),
pp. 45, 59, 65, 79, 81, 128, 139-40.
11. Rey M. Longyear, Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music,
2nd ed. rev. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp.
147-48. Longyear credits Abraham with originating the term
"tonal [sic] parenthesis" and provides the passage from the Nocturne as an illustration.
12. The third-skip, A to C-sharp, reiterates a thematic cell introduced
in bar 1 and re-used a step higher each in bars 2 and 3.
13. Fryderyk Chopin, Complete Works, I, Preludes, ed. Ignacy J.
Paderewski, Ludwik Bronski, and J6zef Turczyfiski (Warsaw:
Fryderyk Chopin Institute, 1949), p. 73.
14. Although he provides no illustrations or specific explanations,
Hadow's remarks are quite perceptive. Of this and two other
examples he has cited, he says: "these apparent consecutives [unresolved dominant seventh chords] . . . do not defy harmonic laws
because they belong to a different jurisdiction: in a word, they are
to be treated not as harmonizations of the theme, but rather as
forms of melodic extension." Hadow, Modern Music, pp. 162-63.
Compare these remarks with those of n. 3 above.
15. Heinrich Schenker, Der freie Satz, rev. and ed. by Oswald Jonas
(Vienna: Universal Edition, 1956), "Anhang," pp. 42, 44.
16. The spelling of these chords is not always conventional. That of
bar 269 is spelled B-E-flat-F-A-natural (i.e., D-sharp). However,
the unusual spellings are correct in terms of the resolution of these
notes in the chords which follow.
17. Schenker, Der freie Satz, "Anhang," p. 113. Schenker shows the
applied dominant as a structural (altered) supertonic seventh chord
in a larger view of the piece.