What do Memorial Day, Maurice Ravel, and augmented chords have in common? Read on!

The breezy “Happy Memorial Day!” always makes me bristle, a little. I know it’s well-intended, but Memorial Day is a time to remember Americans who died serving in our armed forces. I guess it’s American to be so relieved for a rare day off that every federal holiday is something to celebrate (with food, of course)!

Memorial Day’s predecessor, “Decoration Day,” honored fallen Civil War soldiers with separate commemorations in northern and southern states. By World War I, Memorial Day had evolved into a single holiday honoring American soldiers who died in battle during all wars.

World War I not only unified our nation’s forces, it also forged America’s alliances in Europe. Casualties throughout Europe far outweighed our own. France alone saw more than 10 times as many soldiers killed, with devastating consequences for families and communities. Remembrance of their comrades was deeply important to returning veterans, as symbolized in the 1919 film J’accuse, and led to veterans’ movements and renewed ideals of pacifism.

We’re not alone in our day of memorial. Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and other national commemorations honor the fallen in various countries. WWI inspired most of them.

So, in solidarity with our European allies, and in the shared human experience of mourning, I’m looking at a French work — Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin – related to WWI.

(You can download the score from IMSLP, here.)

Tombeau de Couperin: a Memorial

Maurice Ravel had a different kind of patriotic tribute in mind before the war broke out. He was thinking of a set of pieces based on French baroque dance forms as an homage to his country and to Francois Couperin. The word “tombeau” (literally, tomb) is an archaic term for pieces composed as memorials. Ravel dedicated each of the six dances to a friend (or friends) of his who died fighting in WWI.

The third of these, sketched in 1914 just before the war began, is the Forlane. Ravel dedicated it to Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a painter who was killed in 1916 (making the dedication retroactive).

Derived from the Italian dance furlana, a forlane is typically a compound-meter work featuring the “sicilienne” rhythm:

(Bach’s Forlane from the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major is a favorite example. It’s very fun to dance to — although at my age, even a minute and a half is a long time to sauté and chassé!)

The Augmented Triad

Oddly enough, I was just thinking about augmented chords! Looking ahead to teaching the Dalcroze Level 1 Summer Course at Eastman in July, I saw the augmented triad is in the curriculum. Does this even function as a chord, I wonder? Mathematically, it makes sense to include it as one of the possibilities for major and minor thirds in triads:

The Major/Major chord is rare, occurring on III of harmonic minor keys. It’s also an odd chord, because it doesn’t seem to function harmonically as much as melodically. Of course, harmony and melody involve pitch relationships, differing only in whether we hear pitches simultaneously or sequentially; vertically or horizontally:

Either way, since traditional harmony revolves around the magnetic force in the half-step between leading tone (7) and the tonic (1), the augmented triad sounds it wants to resolve upward, as an appoggiatura. The augmented 5th is also the inversion of the tritone – the devilishly dissonant interval between a perfect 4th and perfect 5th – which harmonic traditions insist must resolve.

Melodically, the raised 7th gives the same impression (chromatic passing tone, appoggiatura or suspension):

Alternatively, either of the other two pitches could act in the same way, because expanding any of the major 3rds yields a perfect 4th which, by contracting the remaining major 3rd , forms a minor triad:

Minor/Augmented or “Sixth Espece”

Ravel’s Forlane begins with four ascending tones in the right hand that suggest an arpeggio; a G natural in the left hand’s chord gives the impression of an e-minor chord with a D# on top, making the A# a chromatic passing tone.

As above, we might expect the D# to resolve up to E. Instead, Ravel returns to B, and flaunts the interval by alternating B# and B-natural with D# (minor and major 3rds). It seems to shake the listener out of the expectations of tradition, refreshing and opening the ear to appreciate another flavor.

As a seventh chord, E-G-B-D# is minor-augmented, a rare bird that can only occur on the tonic of harmonic minor. To my ears, the addition of the E below the G augmented triad seems to draw the D# even more strongly upward to complete the octave. (I have it in a minor, below.)

Jaques-Dalcroze seemed to agree with me. Dalcroze Solfège classifies seven species (especes) of seventh chords with resolutions according to function. The method involves singing and playing these chords in all keys, with all inversions, rooted in all possible scale tones. The minor-augmented chord is Jaques-Dalcroze’s “Sixth Espece.”

In root position, Jaques-Dalcroze does resolve the 7th upward; however, when the chord is inverted, the 7th has nowhere to go. Theory nerds (and I am not one) might be interested in his solution:


Whole-tone Lens

Ravel writes three augmented triads, built on G, E and A, in the first two measures of Forlane. Maybe Ravel reveled in augmented chords and made them glide on chromaticism; but it still seemed there might be something else happening.

I looked at the piece through the lens of whole-tone scales, and realized whole tones are the perfect habitat for augmented triads. There, they can exist quite happily without all the gravitational pushing and pulling of diatonic leading tones.

Improvisation on whole-tone scales offers the impressionist sounds of swimming, shifting and suspending without hard gravity. It relates to impressionist paintings, where traditional boundaries literally blurred.

There are only two possible whole tone scales (variously spelled). In the Forlane, Ravel alternates and juxtaposes them; it only takes a half step to shift from one to the other. Seen this way, the A# in the first measure is not an ornament of B; rather, this half step represents the bridge from one whole-tone tetrachord to another (E to A#, then B to D#).

Try it!

I find the easiest way to begin playing with whole tone scales is to approach the landscape of the keyboard in specific terrains: give one hand the group of three black keys, and the other C, D and E; or, give one hand the pair of two black keys and the other F, G, A and B. Once you get used to the combinations of tones, you’ll be able to use them more freely.

Each of the two whole-tone scales has two augmented triads. These can be inverted and respelled, but I think they are the only possibilities. Build the chord on any pitch, then move to the next step and build another.

Just to test this, I drew stars to represent the chords. Play stars of any color in sequence to find augmented triads. Notice that purple and green are from one whole-tone scale; orange and blue are from the other one.

What’s interesting is that Ravel uses augmented chords from the purple-green scale with melody from the orange-blue scale and vice-versa, giving more dissonance.

Try inventing ostinato patterns using various augmented chords, and combine tones from the same whole tone scale and from the alternative one, as Ravel does.

I hope you have a meaningful Memorial Day!

(For more on Dalcroze Solfege, see Jack Stevenson’s iBooks.)