Bruckner, 7th Symphony, 1st movement, mm.100-122

Harmonic Pedal Or ‘Standing On The Dominant’?

Bruckner, 7th Symphony, 1st movement

How dissonant a sustained bass note must be, in order to be considered a harmonic pedal? If the dominant in the bass is underlying the harmony that would, even without the bass, be understood as the dominant, could we interpret it as a harmonic pedal? Are the concepts standing on the dominant and dominant pedal mutually exclusive? I will examine a fragment from the 1st movement of Bruckner’s 7th symphony (from m.103), in search for the answers to these questions.





The structural position of this fragment is the transition between the second and the third theme. Although the harmony is throughout this excerpt the V (with appoggiaturas, chord extensions, and other embellishments), this standing on the dominant has the same effect as a dominant pedal. The listener feels that this dominant is very loaded, that its tension increases, in other words, that there is some conflict that has to be resolved. Where is the conflict?

The conflict is situated on several hierarchical levels. On the highest level, it is the tonal conflict between the dominant and the tonic. On the second level, it is the conflict between the local-level formal proportions and the harmony: the dominant is ‘too long’. On the third level, it is the conflict between the two melodic layers: the ascending melody and the immovable bass. On the fourth level, it is the conflict between the harmony and the appoggiaturas in the melody. On the fifth level, there is a conflict between the harmony suggested by the middle voices, and the dominant harmony. At last, there is a sonorous conflict between the F#7 chord and trumpets’ parts. The network of these conflicts, in cooperation with increasing dynamics, increases the tension. The tension is directed towards the resolution of the dominant into the tonic. This event is constantly being postponed, which creates denial-tension and determinedness: the urge to hear the tonic grows.

Let us observe the events on the local level. We are in B major. The pedal appears under the tonic harmony, in the form of cadential 6/4 that is expected to resolve into V5/3. This happens indeed. The leading tone (A#), however, immediately proceeds in the descending motion. The created dissonance (G#) is again an appoggiatura that is expected to continue to F#. This happens as well. Everything is for a moment again united in V, but all the voices continue to move downwards, through a passing chord realizing yet another appearance of the same harmony. The movement continues, driven by the non-closing character of m.104: the chromatic alteration at the end of the bar implies further movement. The next 2-bar motif continues the descending progression, and also here each bar implies continuation of the line. The harmonic function is stable, but the alternation of consonant and dissonant moments makes the harmony dynamic on the local level. The continuation of the melodic descend makes the listener wonder at which ‘height’ it will stop. Probably, it will happen whenever a convenient moment occurs. The sense for proportions will help the listener in choosing a couple of moments when this could be expected. The expectation-tension rises.





A new element is introduced in m.107: the previous motif is sequentially moved a third up (follow the green selection). The notion of melodic sequence, which is, naturally, just as open-ended as the sequence-model, creates a probability of more events before the dominant is resolved. And indeed, the motif is once more repeated. The ascending line of sequential repetitions, which itself increases the tension, is emphasized by the descending melodic movement in each iteration. The second violin imitates the sequence in a canon with the first (from m.106), which adds to the dynamicity.

The similarity of the material groups the bars mm.105-110, and the feeling for the classical proportions indicates that after two more bars the dominant could be resolved. The following two bars (mm.111-112) end in a very convenient way for this expectation: the ascend has stopped, the last accented note is dissonant and resolves into the leading tone (unites with the harmony) just at the right moment for changing the harmony.

However, another trend has set in: m.111 copies the rhythm of m.110 (and not of m.109, which would be just a continuation of the previous rhythmic line), and this rhythmic pattern is now established as constant. The perceptive shortening of the 2-bar pattern into the one-bar in m.111, feels as fragmentation, and brings a certain acceleration (notice that the melodic line in mm.103-106 was also ‘shortened’ when the sequential repetition of its last two bars took place in m.107). Soon after, the melodic line forms a new 2-bar pattern. Its establishment initiates another ascending sequence (orange selection). Again, the tension increases. The listener knows what is going to come but cannot envision the exact way nor the exact moment it will happen.

The second sequential repetition (sequence initiated in m.111) starts in m.115 (purple selection). It is not completed, instead, its first bar is now repeated a number of times. New acceleration takes place. The repetition of the motif on the high F#3, with crescendo dynamics and the sonorous support of the whole orchestra is the culmination of the process. But we shall have to wait for the tonic chord a little longer than expected. The middle voices have not yet stabilized in the dominant (light-blue and yellow selections in the following image). Perhaps it is not so much the question of the pitch - as of the melodic gesture. All the sounding pitches (above very much emphasized F#) form the extended sonority of the dominant, however, the melodic succession in trumpets and violas (light-blue selection) suggest two chords and, furthermore, does not have closural effect. The repeated melodic motif (sequentially shifted up, to the following tone in the chord) is metrically positioned so to end on the downbeat, closing on the pitches that extend F#7 chord (most of them belong to the tonic triad). In such way, each new bar opens with a harmonic conflict, even if not a very strong one.

Instrumentation has, I believe, the crucial role here. If the pitches played by trumpets and violas were integrated in the melody of other instruments, they would be understood either as extension of the dominant chord or as appoggiaturas (or passing tones). Bruckner has decided to score them in such a way that they do not form any simple pattern that can be understood in the context of (extended) F#7. They miss a third in the middle, which prevents them from being heard as common arpeggios. The missing third (except from the very first iterations) divides the pitches into the lower third - belonging to F# chord, and the higher third - not belonging to the same chord). The higher third is further not ‘justified’ by a continuation, and so becomes dissonant.

The last four bars of the dominant still feature some suspensions that need to resolve (see the figure below). The non-synchronized movement of different voices towards the resolution could be seen as a small conflicting interaction between these voices (the slower voices are delaying the reaching of the goal). The very final, ‘pure’ dominant is reached only at the very end. The harmonic progression is ready to move on.

The process of reaching this point was rather long. The denial of completion of the harmonic progression has induced the urge for the expected event. The process has had several phases, each marked by one or more conflicting interactions. First, it was the conflicting 6/4 suspension, which was prolonged by non-closing melodic line. Second, the ascending cadences conflicted the rooted bass. Third, the ascending motif in Vla and Tr, in conflicting interactions with the bass. At last, the harmonic conflict within the process of resolving of 6/4 chord. The conflicts themselves are perhaps not the primary pedal-creating factors. I believe that the most responsible actors are the processes that these conflicting lines undergo. All these streams have their own phases, towards the final goal (pure dominant harmony) that is shared.

I have said that the dominant pedal arrived in its cadential 6/4 version. This is, however, obvious only in retrospect. A series of modulating sequences precedes this point. The last one is modified and its melodic movement suggests the consonant F# as the melodic goal in m.103. The G major chord in mm.101 is probably first understood as the dominant, and possibly immediately transformed into the tonic (rendering the relation with the previous C as a plagal one).[1] The expected consonant F# in the melody could be supported by the D major chord or by the B major chord (in both cases it would be a plagal kind of progression). The melodic line ascends to the very high register, and the resolution to the bright B major chord projects almost spiritual meaning to this musical gesture. Harmonic implications are bVI-I6/4. At first, this relationship brings the listener to such a beautiful moment of arrival, that this effect totally undermines the harmonic implications of the bass tone. One of the actors in this situation is the competitive interaction between the plagal meaning of the progression (if this is how the listener perceives it), and the predominant-dominant progression that could be understood in retrospect. The two of them exclude each other, or at least profoundly influence the perception of the other one.

In result, if the listener feels ‘the arrival’ (as I do)[2], the harmonic meaning of m.103 is not understood as a dissonant dominant 6/4 (cadential), but rather as a colored tonic. It can be noticed that the F# in the bass does not continue any existing bass-line. It is thus not an expected necessity. It appears in a modest way, quite differently from the most dominant pedals that forcefully take place (the horn on the third beat in m.103 is providing a hint of the real function of the F#). Slowly, it becomes more obvious, which is the result of crescendo dynamic, its omnipresence, and the growing understanding of the listener that this is a dominant pedal. The peaceful opening of the pedal section is slowly transformed into an exciting journey towards that what will most certainly come at its end. The growing textural density is one of the announcing gestures - the expectation-tension grows together with it.  All the processes that I have pointed at have delayed this end, prolonged what had otherwise been ‘just’ a long dominant, and contributed to the pedal-ness of the bass tone.

As standing on the dominant in many cases includes a number of processes that incite expectation-tension, many such cases could probably be considered being harmonic pedals.

To close this short reflection, I would like to compare the discussed pedal with the one at the end of the movement, from m.413. This section features a long tonic pedal - or a ‘standing on the tonic’ event. If the dominant pedal discussed above marks the entrenching of the contrasting key, then, this is a similar moment, where the home key is finally, unmistakably re-confirmed. The tonally unstable first theme has just resounded above the long E in the bass - which didn’t bring the home-key back. The last 32 bars, are just the tonic harmony, with two non-chord tones, in the form of appoggiaturas. Different than with dominant pedal, there are no processes, no sequences, no streams here. There are only motifs based on the tonic chord (either arpeggio or embellished broken chord), that do not group together to form implicative lines. There are many static voices, confirming the tonic harmony. There are no stories to follow. The last long E in the bass is not a harmonic pedal.







[1] The nature of the pattern is equivocal. The first chord in the pair is the tonic, which makes the second one the dominant. At the same time that the second harmony sounds, the tone collection changes, and turns the dominant into the tonic.

[2] Robert Simpson, (in Steinwand, 2015: 149) sees the form of this movement as consisting of two parts: the first part is driven by the evolution of B minor and major, and the second part is the process of return of the home key against the B. The B is firmly reached and entrenched by the pedal F# in m.103. In this view, m.103 is understood as an arrival.

Bruckner, 7th Symphony, 1st movement, from m.413

Bruckner, 9th Symphony, Scherzo, mm.103-123