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    What would you call this C#?

    This is the theme from Messiaen's Île de feu II:

    If you ignore the A# half note and the ornamental(?) C#, the pitch content of the theme is clearly pentatonic: {E,G,A,C,D}. There are several reasons I can't give that C# (and the preceding C-natural 'grace note') the ornamental/grace status its notation suggests. First, it occurs as part of the cadential set {C#,E,G} (shared by the theme in Île de feu I where the C# appears as a 'proper' 8th note) so the final E (quasi-tonic?) is approached from below & above by minor 3rds. Add in the A# & by the final E the overall pentatonic quality is destabilized by the diminished-7th chord set {A#,C#,E,G}. Secondly, at various points the entire theme is rhythmically flattened into a stream of even 16th notes. When that happens, the C# as well as the prior C-natural 'grace note' also become 16ths. Given Messiaen's use of 'additive rhythms', it's also puzzling he didn't simply write 16ths instead of using ornament notation. I've even wondered if there is something in Hindu musics or gamelan that could offer a hint, but I am considerably ignorant of the techniques & performance practices there.

    Does anyone know of similar cases in C20 notation & what might be a good tag for this other than the confusing, clumsy (and really not accurate) 'essential ornament'?

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    • 4 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I'd suggest calling the c# an echapee (first and second e's with the acute accent)--a tag not only convenient but descriptive.

      Jonathan Elkus


    • Knowing nothing about Messian's techniques or this piece, it is noticable there is no repetition of rhythm pattern (each bar is different). As far as the A# cadance (which is a disconnected member of the latter dim. 7th chord collection), the second phrase regains its pentatonic dominance until the c# grace note approaching the second cadence on E, which has thematic consistency with the opening "minor 3rds" motif - the c# reinforces this shape in a compressed manner with the G thereby emphasizing the opening motif and giving the A# at the first cadence a harmonic relationship (although delayed) to the second cadence and "minor 3rd" melodic saturation.
    • I don't know Messian well, but Steve Larson's term "embellishing leaps" might work.

      Your description seems to suggest that the C# may not be just a regular old embellishment in terms of its structural significance but the rhythm and the slur that connects the C# to E lead me to hear the C# as embellishing E.

      In "Problem of Prolongation in Tonal Music" (JMT 41/1), Larson says "An affix is a single note that is added before (prefix) or after (suffix) the note it embellishes. Affixes may be further distinguished by direction (ascending or descending) and by interval size (common tones create repetitions or anticipations, steps create incomplete neighbors, and leaps create what I call 'embellishing leaps')" (p.121).

      Of course, this may need to be heavily qualified depending on where this excerpt falls in between the tonal/post-tonal spectrum.

    • As a matter of fact, I would not call this theme "pentatonic". It is true that the pitch content is that of a pentatonic scale, but the treatment of the scale is by far too disjunct to suggest any kind of pentatonic "modality". (Pentatonic modality indeed seems characterized by pentatonic turns occupying the just 4th in three notes, say +2 +3 semitones, or -2 -3, or +5 -3, +5 -2, etc.; a full discussion of that would lead us too far.)

      That is to say that despite the apparent pentatonic scale of the theme, this does not suffice to explain it. What strikes me, in this case, is the chain of thirds, initially A-C-E-G, going back G-E-(C)-A#, then shifting for the end to G-E-C#-E. One should realize that, if this idea of chains of thirds applies, then the concept of identity at the octave does not completely (not that of pitch class).

      Schenker would have described this as typically French and evidencing the French incapacity to produce conjunct lines – an interesting observation, even if the formulation may not be the best one: it is not an incapacity, more probably a propension, but it does exist.

      Such chains of thirds (where the actual size of the thirds, major or minor, may not be of paramount importance) have been discussed in Curt Sachs, "The Road to Major", in MQ, or in Joseph Smits van Waesberghe, A Textbook of Melody. Recent papers by Nidaa Abou Mrad attempt to extent this principle of chains of third to include neutral thirds of 3,5 semitones, in some oriental music.

      What strikes me in the above is the number or theoretical hypotheses on which we may base not only our analytic understanding of the theme, but also our hearing of it: pentatonicism; pitch classes; pitch collections (scales); chains of thirds; etc. Hypotheses of which we may not enough be aware (especially not as hypotheses) but which nevertheless determine not only our analyses, but also our perceptions.