Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

On Harmony, Polyphony, and Humanity

The following is a reflection on a recent column in The American Organist magazine (June 2011 issue) by Thomas Troeger, the national chaplain for the American Guild of Organists. Dr. Troeger discusses musical terminology as metaphors for the non-musical, focusing in this particular column on the significance of harmony, both musical and spiritual.

I often read Thomas Troeger’s insightful columns with interest and sympathy. His recent entry, “Salutary Harmonies,” (TAO, June 2011) prompts me to respond with an alternate understanding of the characteristics of harmony, one that offers a fresh and complementary perspective on the meaning of harmony in terms of human relations.

As Dr. Troeger hints, we typically talk about musical harmony in terms of chords, the “simultaneous sound of notes” that yields “vertical music,” as the Oxford Dictionary explains. This is a rather static notion of harmony, however, perhaps stemming from the historical preeminence of keyboard instruments. An isolated chord is indeed a resonant sonority, but it only becomes music in the context of other sonorities. Musical progress and meaning arises from an ongoing discourse of sonorities, whose composite inner voices bear a relationship to one another.  This play of inner voices moving to and from a tonal center (or a series thereof), leads the listener along an odyssey of keys. It is immaterial whether harmony is the by-product of a Renaissance motet, a Bach fugue, a homophonic Viennese minuet, or the simplest harmonic theory exercise: all harmony is polyphony.

As in the “harmony of the spheres”—a marvelous image!—about which Dr. Troeger wrote, harmony arises from the confluence of independent contrapuntal voices. From an artistic point of view, the Oxford dictionary definition of harmony as “a simultaneous sound of notes” is not entirely adequate, because the “vertical” cannot really be separated from the “horizontal.” Harmony is not merely the momentary experience of resonance—exhilarating though such a moment might be. Harmony is the outcome of confluent, congruent individual strands within the entire fabric of an enterprise—musical or otherwise.

By way of illustration, consider the biblical Star of Bethlehem observed by the Magi, which, some scholars propose, appeared as the conjunction of several planets at the time of Christ’s birth. Like contrapuntal voices approaching a cadence, such an astronomical confluence may well have marked the simultaneous converging of the man, the place, and the moment that is the Christ event. From the Christian point of view, this is a striking expression of divine harmony!

Moreover, musical harmony is that aspect of our tonal system that imparts movement to music. More than any other feature of tonal music, it is harmony which arouses the listener’s sense of expectation, and subsequent fulfillment or surprise. This can only be achieved through the interaction of cooperating polyphonic voices. Furthermore, it is not simply an ongoing formulation of consonances that makes music dynamic—for such music would be mere minimalism. Rather, it is the introduction of dissonance into this discourse of harmonies that energizes voice-leading and impels the music. Even the apparent incongruity of “unrelated” chords can elicit in the listener an emotional response by their very disparity from the harmonies around them.

Likewise, harmony in human relations is really a polyphony of diverse hearts and minds. A harmonious friendship or marriage is not simply an abiding experience of common purpose, interest, and affection. It is the symbiosis of individual, contrasting personalities and points of view that leads to a dynamic, often unpredictable, yet invigorating and constructive relationship. This holds true on every level of human relationship and endeavor, no matter how grand or humble. And it aptly describes the polyphony of the human spiritual journey, which constantly seeks harmony in its intersection and interaction with the journeys of others.

Commentary © 2011 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.


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