What’s in a chromatic line?

The chromatic scale, one of the most prevalent and recognizable figures in all of music, from the Baroque era to the present day, has many implications, both musical and rhetorical. One of the iconic examples of a chromatic line appears in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the descending chromatic line represents a descent into hell. Throughout the 18th century, the figure carried a great deal of meaning in music. Even if we’re not sure what meaning any specific chromatic line carries, it’s likely to have meant something. In this entry, I look at a standalone Handel fugue in A minor, and at how the descending chromatic scale determines its character. 

The four-voice fugue has a descending chromatic figure in the third bar of its subject, which is then replicated five bars later in the second countersubject. Thus, Handel prepares us for many chromatic figures over the course of the fugue, which acquires two meanings: a technically musical one, and a wider emotional one. Because of the composer’s mastery, the two meanings beautifully merge together. Handel builds a great number of suspensions on this chromatic figure, which at times steer the music quite far away from the tonic key of A minor. As a result, from a tonal perspective, we don’t know where the chromatic line will end, creating a natural sense of suspense and tension. The emotional implication of this is quite open-ended: it can either bring with it a sense of timeless serenity, or impose severity. Whether it brings one or the other depends greatly on the performer’s choice. It is precisely in this disorientation, in the “unknowingness” of where the descending figure will end, that the musical and the emotional aspects so elegantly intersect. 

While pondering this question, one parallel that comes to mind is a fugue not too dissimilar to this one: Bach’s F minor fugue from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. There also, descending chromaticism is abundant, and presented at the very beginning (from the first bar). The main difference, however, is that Bach’s fugue has a lot more rhythmic variety, with sixteenth notes, than Handel’s. By contrast, only one figure involving sixteenth notes appears in the A minor fugue, a dactylic rhythm. In Bach’s fugue, the dactylic rhythm is combined with a number of other patterns involving sixteenth notes, creating more friction and tension. This appears to make the Bach fugue more “complex” than the Handel’s, but rather than compare the two, I like thinking that the rhythmic characteristics inform the character of the piece at large: the Bach fugue is more argumentative, whereas the Handel fugue is more introspective and serene. Even the bitterness of some of the suspensions gets somewhat diluted by the serenity of the general character of the Handel fugue. We don’t know where the chromatic line will end, but do we really need to? 

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