parallel fifths: Two musical lines whose notes are a fifth apart. In the medieval music known as organum, voices moved in parallel fifths or in other parallel intervals. In the Classical and Romantic periods, parallel fifths were generally considered undesirable and even incorrect, the ungainly gesture of an ill-trained student. But many twentieth-century tonal composers found the stark, austere sound of parallel fifths appealing. At the beginning of Billy the Kid, Aaron Copland uses them to conjure a vast, primeval space:
passacaglia: A musical form in which variations occur over a repeating bass line. The passacaglia had its origin in early 17th-century Spanish guitar playing; Bach, in his Passacaglia in C minor, gave it a slow-moving, dark-hued grandeur. In the twentieth century, Berg’s Wozzeck, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, and Britten’s Peter Grimes, among other works, make dramatic use of the passacaglia's obsessive, mesmerizing repetition. Here is the beginning of the passacaglia interlude from Act II of Grimes, with the theme heard in the pizzicato cellos and basses at the outset and the solo viola representing the boy who is suffering in Peter Grimes's hands. The variations that follow represent the boy's work, a "mistake," and the despair that follows.
Colin Davis conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Philips 289 462 847-2.
pentatonic scale: A simple, five-note scale that appears in musical traditions around the world. If you play consecutive black keys on a piano, you will form a pentatonic scale.
perfect fifth: A pure, unmodified fifth.
phasing music: Steve Reich’s term for the minimalist canons in works such as It’s Gonna Rain and Piano Phase, in which identical pieces of musical material slowly fall out of sync with each other, creating vibrant rhythmic effects. See examples in Chapter 14 of the audio guide.
Phyrgian mode: See mode.
pianissimo (pp): A dynamic marking indicating very soft.
polyphony: Music characterized by multiple musical lines sounding simultaneously, either in strict imitation of each other or moving in more independent fashion. Counterpoint is almost synonymous with polyphony, but it usually refers to specific practices that were codified during the Baroque period — for example, the fugue.
polyrhythm, polyrhythmic: Music is said to be polyrhythmic if two or more rhythms or meters are superimposed in a single passage, one pulling against the other(s). Masters of polyrhythm in the twentieth century include Stravinsky, Bartók, Conlon Nancarrow, György Ligeti, and Elliott Carter. In the "Procession of the Sage" from Stravinsky's Rite, tubas play a sixteen-beat figure three times, horns play an eight-beat phrase six times, a guiro plays eight pulses to the bar, the timpani play twelve pulses to the bar, and so on:
polytonality: Two or more key-areas superimposed in a single passage. Polytonality and polymodality play a significant role in music of the early- and mid-twentieth-century, especially in works of Debussy, Strauss, Ives, Bartók, and Milhaud.
pp (pianissimo): A dynamic marking indicating very soft. ppp means even softer.
quarter note: The most common rhythmic value or duration of a note. In 4/4 time, there are four quarter notes to a bar.
quintuplet: Five notes that take up the time of four (or another number).
register: A term referring to the relative position of a passage, voice, or instrument in the pitch range from high to low. Middle C, which falls almost (but not quite) at the midpoint of the piano’s eighty-eight keys, is generally considered the dividing line between high and low.
resolve: A particular sequence of chords is said to “resolve” when it finds a logical endpoint, usually on the tonic or home key.
retrograde: In contrapuntal writing, a device whereby the notes of a melody are run in reverse. See twelve-tone method.
Rite chord: See “Augurs” chord.
Romantic, Romanticism: A musical era that is generally considered to have begun in the late 1820s and the 1830s, with Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt, and to have ended sometime around World War I, though its implications reverberate in music to this day. Romantic composers sought inspiration in literature and painting; abandoned or greatly modified Classical procedures such as sonata form; produced operas, symphonies, and tone poems of unprecedented duration and scope; vastly expanded the resources of the orchestra; and employed ever more complex, circuitous harmonic designs. Rachmaninov, in the slow movement of his Second Symphony (1908), unfurled one of the quintessential Romantic phrases, even as Schoenberg was unleashing the atonal revolution:
Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra, DG 439888.
row: See twelve-tone music.
Salome chord: At the beginning of Salome, after the opening clarinet scale (see Salome scale), a brief six-note theme is heard, to be associated with the title character. Later in the opera, these notes sound together, with a slight alteration, as a single chord, to superbly ominous effect:
This is sometimes called “telescoping” or, more technically, “verticalization”—i.e, a horizontal string of notes is telescoped into a vertical collection. It is a favorite device of composers in the Second Viennese School tradition.
Salome scale: A curious row of notes that is played by the clarinet at the very beginning of Strauss’s Salome. The first four notes appear to belong to the key of C-sharp major, while the next four seem to belong to G major, before the note G-sharp brings us back to the neighborhood of C-sharp major again:
Here is the orchestral version:
scale: A sequence of notes, proceeding by short steps, that serves as a kind of musical fund for a particular piece.
second: See semitone (below) and whole tone.
Second Viennese School: The school of composition informally founded by Arnold Schoenberg in the first decade of the twentieth century. Other founding members of the group were Schoenberg’s most gifted pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. To say that a twentieth-century work has a “Second Viennese School sound” is to suggest that it is largely atonal in harmony, perhaps twelve-tone in method, and that it possesses a heated expressionist atmosphere.
semitone, also minor second or half-step: The smallest interval between notes in conventional Western music:
John Williams’s shark-attack theme from Jaws makes heavy use of the semitone.
serialism: See twelve-tone music.
The major seventh, a semitone wider:
sextuplet: Six notes that take up the time of four (or another number).
Six, Les: Group of young French composers who formed a common front in Paris in the 1920s. Their music had less in common than critical propaganda claimed, but it was often characterized by playfulness, casualness, references to the pre-Romantic styles, and nods to music hall and jazz. The composers were Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre; Erik Satie, before his death, was a kind of godfather to the group.
Sprechstimme: A vocal technique poised between speech and song, in which the performer deliberately approximates pitches and glides from one to another. Schoenberg made use of Sprechstimme in Pierrot lunaire and Moses und Aron, among other works. Here is Moses uttering his opening line of the opera, "O single, eternal, omnipresent, invisible, and unrepresentable God!":
Pierre Boulez conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Chorus of the Netherlands Opera and David Pittman-Jennings as Moses; DG 449174.
syncopation: A buoyant rhythmic effect created by shifting accents from strong beats to weak beats. In classic ragtime tunes, the accents are not on one-two-three-four but on one-two-three-four, as in Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag":
Joshua Rifkin, piano; Nonesuch 79159.