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Desire in Chromatic Harmony

A Psychodynamic Exploration of Fin de Siècle Tonality

Desire in Chromatic Harmony (2019) is a book by music theorist, Kenneth Smith (University of Liverpool).

"Of the many composers in the Western classical tradition who celebrated the marriage between psyche and sound, those explored in this book followed the lines diverging from Wagner in philosophizing the nature of desire in music. This books offers two new theories of tonal functionality in the music of the first half of the twentieth century that seek to explain its psychological complexities. First, the book further develops Riemann’s three diatonic chord functions, extending them to account from chromatic chord progression and substitution. The three functions (Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant) are compared to Jacques Lacan’s twin-concepts of metaphor and metonymy which drive the human desiring apparatus. Second, the book develops a technique for analysing the “drives” that pull chromatic music in multiple directions simultaneously, creating a libidinal surface that mirrors the tensions of the psyche found in Schopenhauer, Freud and post-Freudians—Lacan, Lyotard, and Deleuze.

The harmonic models are tested in psychologically challenging pieces of music by post-Wagnerian composers. From the obsession with death and mourning in Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony to an exploration of “perversion” in Richard Strauss’s Elektra; from the post-Kantian transcendentalism of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata to the “Accelerationism” of Skryabin’s late piano works; from the Sufi mysticism of Szymanowski’s Song of the Night to the failed fantasy of the American dream in Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, the book cuts a path through the dense forests of chromatic complexity, and digs deep into the psychological make-up of post-Wagnerian psychodynamic music."