The Color of Chords

Technically, winter doesn’t officially begin until December 21.  Although this is still autumn, the world outside my window is grey and dreary.  The burst of colors brought on by changing leaves left us weeks ago.  The blisters on my thumb from raking leaves have already healed.  Daylight is short, the sky is overcast, and the only bright colors to be found are in Christmas lights that twinkle on my neighbor’s porch.

Arnold Schoenberg

Sometimes colors are everything.  One musical example can be found in Arnold Schoenberg’s third piece in Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16.  Now please, don’t everyone start running away just because I mentioned the name Schoenberg.  He was an alright guy, a bit stubborn at times, but shuttering in your seat at the thought of composing music with twelve tones isn’t going to do anyone any good.  Besides, Opus 16 was published in 1909, a good 12 years or so before the first dodecaphonic compositions.  Yes, the Five Pieces of Opus 16 are all atonal, but number 3 is only 3 minutes long.  I promise it won’t kill you.  Let’s give it a try, shall we?

Early_Morning_Lake_ViaredWhen Arnold submitted his Opus 16 pieces to the publisher, they asked for some descriptive titles.  Schoenberg reluctantly provided them with titles, but from this we know that they were slapped on after the music was composed.  The third piece was given the title “Farben” which is the German word for colours.  This is an especially appropriate title, as the music is all about instrumental tone color.  Melody, motives, harmonic movement all are not matters emphasized by Schoenberg in this short piece.  Another name that was attached to this work was “Summer Morning by a Lake”.  I’m not completely sure where this came from, or if Schoenberg was really thinking about a lakeside sunrise when he composed the music.  Living in Michigan and spending a few mornings in a cabin on a lake with the sun rising, I can see where this image got attached to this music.  If it helps you enjoy, then by all means, think about a lake.

This piece is often used as an example when talking about “Klangfarbenmelodie”, which translates as a melody of tone colours (timbres).  Truly, the orchestration is the key element and where much of the interest in this music lies.  It actually puzzles me that Schoenberg’s brilliant student, Anton Webern, made a piano reduction of this piece.  Reducing all of the instrumental colors to simply a piano sound robs the music of the main point.  Webern had to realize this when he was making the piano reduction.

The music starts with a five voice chord, using the notes C-G#-B-E-A.  This harmony is static for the first three measures.  The only change is found in instrumentation, with some orchestra instruments dropping out and new ones taking their place.  This changes the balance of the chord tones and the instrumental colour that we hear.  The ultimate “goal” of the harmony is to move this chord one half-step (semitone) lower.  Old Arnie doesn’t just go directly there.  He has a much more interesting way of kaleidoscoping us to this lower chord.   He takes one musical voice and moves it up a half-step and then down a whole step.  Then the next voice follows the same pattern, up and then down.  This repeats until all of the voices have completed the voyage down one half step.  This process creates a number of different chords and note combinations as all of the voices move through this pattern.

The end result of this canon of harmonic voices and changing of instrumental timbres is a surprisingly effective 3-4 minutes of music.  There are other little elements that stand out like “raisins in a tapioca pudding” as John Rahn writes.  There is even a little rhythmic motive that Schoenberg himself labeled the “leaping trout” motive.  You will surely know it when you hear it.

Arnold Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra Opus 16, No. 3 “Farben”

Speaking of colors, I recently attended a party at a local franchise of “Painting With A Twist”.  I’ve never been much of a painter, but this was instructor led and I sort of faked my way through things.  Here is my version of what they called “Michigan Sunrise”



3 thoughts on “The Color of Chords

Add yours

  1. Schoenberg’s piece does have an etherial feel to it and does move at the speed of a sunrise. I wrote a piece of music called Chromatic Blues. It isn’t all chromatic but has a touch and I play the flute in that one. It moves a little faster.

  2. I like the painting! Especially how Drummond Island looks like the flag of Ireland.
    Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” is still in my playlist.

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