Three Leçons in Harmony: A View from the Nineteenth-Century Paris Conservatory

Michael Masci

Much of our practical music theory pedagogy relies upon prescriptions for “left-to-right” functional harmony, such as“move from V to I,” or “move from ii6 to V7.” Such an approach, however, faces familiar limitations when dealing with chromatic harmony: while descriptive models of harmonic tendency and function offer powerful tools for analyzing chromaticism, prescriptive concepts for applied chords, borrowed harmonies, and modal mixture often prove too conceptually dense and unwieldy when relied upon for the practical purpose of composing.  Yet this descriptive-prescriptive asymmetry points to another important disjuncture. As a historical matter, nineteenth-century composers ranging from Wagner to Brahms to Fauré did not possess an explicit notion of harmonic syntax, as such a concept was not part of contemporary composition pedagogy. An examination of historical chromatic harmony pedagogy thus prospectively offers us not only insight into how late nineteenth-century composers arrived at writing in such a rich chromatic style with such a notion, but also, and in doing so, may offer us a path around a familiar roadblock in our current theory pedagogy of how to make chromatic harmony more practicable. With these questions in mind, this article examines historical methods for teaching chromatic harmony, considering in particular those found in Émile Durand’s Traité complet d’harmonie théorique et pratique (1881) and the broader French conservatory tradition of harmony pedagogy of which it was a part.