Persichetti’s Twentieth Century Harmony, Creative Aspects and Practice – A Foreword

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to make a journey through this particular book on the Twentieth Century. I hope to do around two or three chapters a week, though that will ultimately change because of over-ambition.

As a foreword to this journey, I will explain a bit about what this book is. Or won’t, and let Persichetti do it instead, as written in the foreword on pages 9-11.

The music of the first half of the twentieth century has produced a harmonic practice that can be defined. During these sixty years, harmonic ideas have been in constant flux; composers have created new musical devices and techniques. This broad palette of materials has fundamental significance for the present scene, for amalgamation of the various sound formations and techniques is in the process. Composers have worked instinctively, with the ear as their guide, and have arrived at something of a common usage of these materials. Contemporary musical resources include a wide range of materials of the past and present, and the available techniques yield abundant expressive returns.

Works of high caliber are plentiful in the twentieth century. The rich mixture of materials and styles is made up of many ingredients: rhythmic energy, vivid harmonic fabric, melodic color, and fresh linear writing. There are bold statements and delicate embellishments, moments of fancy, and developmental forces that refuse to be bound by a severe formal plan. There are daringly experimental and strongly traditional forces which bring divergent materials together.

The various harmonic devices do not, in themselves, account for creative writing. Only when theory and technique are combined with imagination and talent do works of importance result. Nevertheless, a practical knowledge of twentieth-century harmonic resources is a requirement for both performer and composer. The performer is offered specific information, and the composer, workable materials.

Twentieth-Century Harmony is not a speculative treatise nor one proposing a personal mode of organization. Rather, it is an account of specific harmonic materials commonly used by twentieth-century composers. Although knowledge of materials and technique does not in itself create a personal style, precision in the choice of notes and understanding of harmonic devices are desirable in perfecting a means of expression and in stating a musical idea clearly and consistently.

This text aims to define this harmonic activity and make it available to the student and young composer. A detailed study of the essential harmonic technique of the twentieth century is presented, according to the practice of contemporary composers. The book is for and about creativity; it presents musical possibilities to stimulate creative musical thought. Specific media are called for, but substitutions may and should be made depending upon the instrumentalists and vocalists available in the classroom or to the composer. Most exercises require originally conceived melody and harmony in a rhythmic frame; tempo, dynamics, and phrasing are fundamental considerations. The applications do not in themselves supply adequate training, but are offered as suggestions for the invention of further examples. Passages form the literature are not reproduced out of context; exact page locations are listed under the heading “Source Material.” None of the examples represent rare cases or exceptional musical coincidences; they do offer representative twentieth century harmonic methods.

This text may be used in advanced harmony courses and as a point of departure in literature of music courses in colleges and conservatories; or it may form the harmonic basis of a first-year composition course for both composition and noncomposition majors. The division of musical study into separate segments – melody, counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, and form – is advisable only if the interdependence of these forces as found in the literature is maintained. Reference is made to contrapuntal, formal, and orchestral devices, for harmonic and contrapuntal movement are affected by a work’s form and medium. The way various chordal structures are built, the reasons they sound as they do, the connection of the chords and their suitability for differing conditions, consistency of texture, and the combining of contrasting textures must be understood.

Following a predetermined path of strict axioms is avoided, for harmonic creativity depends upon the relation of chord to chord in a particular context; any chord may progress to any other chord, and seemingly opposing techniques may be combined under certain formal and dramatic conditions. In theoretical deductions the emphasis is placed upon creative ideas and compositional stimulation.

Composers have, in their music, coordinated the various musical resources of the early part of the century. Significant creators working actively in many media have given impetus to a flourishing twentieth-century music, have given it pulse and creative health. The embryonic composer has a technical heritage. Little can stand in his way if he possesses creative talent.

(Persichetti 1961, 9-11)


While that is a monster of a text wall, it’s a good read and strikes some similarities to my own philosophy on composition. I hope this journey will be as exciting for you as it will be for me.


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