This tiny excerpt comes at the beginning of a magical moment in Maurice Ravel's magnum opus, the ballet Daphnis et Chloé. I have gotten to know it lately because I'm singing in a chorus that will be performing it next month with the St. Louis Symphony. And even though it's just one microscopic detail from a vast score—almost an hour's worth of sumptuous, impressionistic music—nevertheless this example has seized my imagination. It is a relic of a unique musical genius that could have been extended almost infinitely, but which Ravel throws away in a handful of brief phrases that only hint at their potential.
It is a harmonic progression of exquisite, almost arabesque symmetry that could form a chain going all the way round to where it started, obliterating any semblance of functional tonality while at the same time uniting intricate logic with a sense of lush exoticism as only Ravel could.
Observe the first two bars of the sample: They form a descending sequence, each bar starting with a minor triad (A minor and G minor, respectively), followed by a dominant-ninth chord whose root is a major third higher (C# and B, respectively), thus standing in a false relation to the Tenor II note of the preceding chord and a tritone (augmented fourth) from the root of the next chord. (The third bar of this sample breaks the pattern in going back to A minor, but in a later instance the pattern extends to the expected F minor chord.)
The remoteness of these chords from each other is what destroys one's sense of functional tonality in this phrase. The sense of musical logic, however, is restored, firstly, by the parallel progression of bar one and two (a descending harmonic sequence); and secondly, by the smooth symmetry of the chord voicings. The initial A minor chord is spaced with the root doubled at the octave (Bass I & II), and the remaining members of the triad closely stacked above (Tenor I & II forming the interval of a major third). The tenors then descend by half-steps, doggedly maintaining the same major-third interval between them, while the basses in contrary motion alternate between leaps of a major third and a major second—B1 down and B2 up a third, then B1 up and B2 down a second, so that on the second chord they find themselves a major third apart, and then an octave apart again, only a full step lower than at first. The chromatically descending tenors, meanwhile, move to create the same chord types in a pattern that could, in theory, continue through an entire descending octave, leading back tonally to where it began.
In the second iteration of this pattern, the one that follows through to F minor, Altos I & II take over the chromatically-descending tenor role. Meanwhile the basses, now in unison, alternately leap down a minor sixth and up a tritone, as though switching back and forth between the B1 and B2 parts of the initial pattern. In this way, Ravel seems simultaneously to compress and expand his tonally unsettled harmonic pattern, while an additional melody line (at first with the Sopranos in unison) cuts across it with a harmonically and rhythmically displaced melodic thread. Iteration 3 transposes this second version of the pattern up an octave, continuing the descent from F minor to C# minor, with the chords in an SST voicing and the countermelody—like a brushstroke that deliberately blurs the lines of a painting—crossing it in the Alto part. Thus Example #2:The fourth phrase of this amazing passage—evocatively scored for textless, a capella chorus in the middle of a huge orchestral masterpiece—introduces another variation of the original idea. Now with the chords in an SSAA voicing and the tenors continuing the descent of that line-blurring line, the chord pattern changes. Now the top Soprano line is spreading upward by half-steps, but for the moment Ravel has thrown aside the symmetrical motion of the other three chord parts. Also, the chord types have changed, moving from A major (2nd inversion) to A-sharp minor (ditto), to a root-position F-sharp major chord, and finally to a huge, first-inversion, G dominant-7th chord for the full chorus—again, a succession of harmonies from regions tonally remote from each other.
At this point the "blurring" melody line acquires a shadow, becoming two lines moving in parallel minor thirds, while underlying chord alternates between G7 and G#7 over a sustained B in the bass. And so we come to the next interesting variant of Ravel's musical thought, as shown in Example #3:Here Ravel seems to have taken his initial arabesque and turned it inside out—and yet it remains instantly recognizable. Notice that Bass I & II parts are now moving in parallel perfect fifths, down a whole step, then up a half-step, and repeat. Before the pattern can repeat for a third bar, it gets a surprise twist, first rhythmically delaying its expected half-step-up movement by a bar, then kinking it around for another whole-step down. Meanwhile, the Tenor I & II parts are the ones moving in contrary motion, starting a minor third apart to complete the minor-triad above the basses, then spreading apart a half-step in each direction to form a perfect fourth so that the T2 part adds a dissonant note (the second of the chord) to what would otherwise be an open-fifth chord. This T2 note, doubled in the soprano line, comes across as something of a passing tone as that voice continues to descend by half-steps, while the T1 part hops down the equivalent of a minor third to begin the second repetition of this pattern. Soprano 2, meanwhile, doubles the first B1 note of each bar and sustains it across the whole bar, in effect adding a 7th to the second chord of the pattern, while the Altos in unison cut their rhythmically and harmonically blurring swath across everything.
So, the effect is a harmonic progression from B minor to something G#-ish, or possibly a last-inversion D# thirteenth-chord, either of which is a leap of cosmic distances in terms of functional tonality; then, in sequence the same harmonic pattern descending from A minor to F#-and-change, resolving in an unexpected direction (and a beat later than expected) to good old E minor.
Ravel continues to develop and refine this idea in musically unexpected ways for a couple more phrases, swapping things around so that the chords are rhythmically offset and the counter-thread (now in the bass line) moves on the beat, and blending the colors of the other choral parts in a variety of ways. As the instruments begin to enter the argument, the mood darkens to a soft SATB chord in which another distinctive variant of the first pattern emerges, with B2 describing a spiral (M3 up, P4 down; m3 up, M2 down), T1 and T2 in chromatically descending major thirds, and B1 sustaining first an E, then a D across breathtakingly dissonant pairs of chords. Out of this emerges a chromatically climbing pattern that morphs into a crescendo for the full chorus, starting with:This phrase always gives me a Bartok flashback; something about the Bass parts reminds me of Cantata Profana. In complete disregard of traditional harmonic function, but confidently affirming the use of triadic harmony, Ravel proceeds from D# minor to D major in three chord-changes. As the crescendo continues, the sopranos rising chromatically and the chorus dividing into as many as six parts, overagainst C tremolos in the orchestra's lowest register and a tonally ambiguous swirl of accompaniment, the chorus surges thrillingly through a progression of chords no less bizarre than B major—A major—D# minor—D augmented—F# major—C major—A-flat—F major (with a G-flat added in the bass)—E-flat minor—and at triple forte, covering a three-octave spread, a climactic but extremely brief B minor chord. If you called this "taking the long way around a change from major to minor," you would be making an understatement. This harmonic route combines just about every possible shift between tonal areas that sound a world apart, in a broadening spiral of remoteness while, at the end, its chord-shapes flare outward like a colossal wedge.
It's dramatic. It's exciting. It's disturbing. It's music that pulls the threads out of the weave of traditional harmony and twists them into something altogether new. I hope I can figure out how to sing it within the next couple of weeks. It's very challenging and the chorus is so exposed! But it is also music that shakes the world in a peculiarly colorful way that could have been created by no one but Ravel.