Aren’t we forgetting something here? We’re now well into chromatic harmony yet we’ve hardly mentioned the one of the four types of ostensibly diatonic triads: we’re up to speed with augmented sixth chords, but not the augmented triad. So what is this augmented triad all about? How do composers use it? How have we neglected it so long (and why do so many textbooks brush over it altogether)?
Recall that we have four types of triads that can be constructed with major and minor thirds alone:
- Diminished triad (minor third + minor third)
- Minor triad (minor third + major third)
- Major triad (major third + minor third)
- Augmented triad (major third + major third)
So the augmented triad is part of this set of possibilities, but apparently not an equal member, at least not in the eyes of common practice composers. Clearly major and minor triads are mission critical to tonal music, and so is the diminished triad, especially in its dominant function role (as viio and as a part of V7). The augmented triad is a slightly peripheral character relation to those protagonists. It can be diatonic but only in one position: as III+ in the harmonic minor. More commonly it is a chromatic chord, a modification of a major triad, and very often in a dominant function. Indeed, even that III+ triad can often be thought of as a modification of V. Notice the close similarity of pitches between V in minor (scale degrees 5, 7, and 2) and III+ (5, 7, and 3). Only one semi-tone distinguishes the one from the other. This similarity (and indeed the augmented triad in a wider sense) is a key part of the parsimonious voice-leading that’s so important to the ‘neo-Riemannian’ approach to harmony which seeks to account for extended tonal relations that become more common in the late nineteenth century. For more on that, see Neo-Riemannian Triadic Progressions. For now, let’s continue to look at some example of the augmented triad in practice.
The relatively peripheral role, and rarity of augmented triads may be thought to diminish its importance, though as the price of gold, diamond, and other rare commodities attest, that very rarity can be valuable. For Schoenberg, this makes the augmented triad ‘better protected against banality’ than the diminished triad and seventh (Schoenberg 1911 trans. ed. 1983, p.239).
The idea of rarity also needs unpacking: when we speak of ‘rarity’ in harmony, we usually mean that it is unusual to see that chord in a focal role. This speaks to Richard Cohn’s observation that, ‘When an augmented triad appears in music before 1830, its behavior is normally well regulated and unobtrusive, tucked into the middle of a phrase rather than exposed at its boundaries, passed through quickly and lacking metric accent’ (Cohn 2012, p.43).
This is likely true may be true in the general case, though that’s not to say there aren’t glorious counter examples. The figure below sets out a favorite example of mine that bucks this trend: ‘mente cordis’ section that concludes the ‘Fecit Potentiam’ of Bach’s Magnificat (1723, 1733). This is a remarkable moment: not only is there an augmented triad at all, but it is introduced by nearly full forces, spanning the full register, and after a dramatic general pause which itself is preceded by a diminished seventh. You couldn’t hope to find a clearer, more dramatically foregrounded augmented triad in any repertoire.
At the bottom of the example I include a possible harmonic reading of this passage which sees the augmented triad setting up a deceptive cadence in the middle of a passage in b minor enclosed by two secondary dominants, viio7/v. So the augmented triad is in good company for harmonic ingenuity …
Having first discussed exceptions to Cohn’s idea of a move from discrete to prominent uses of the augmented chord over time, let’s now take a closer look at what that means with two cases that are perhaps more reflective of a ‘general’ practice. We begin with the first, ‘unobtrusive’ type.
The following example from Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel Gondellied (6 Lieder, Op.1, No.6) is typical of a use of the augmented chord as part of a chromatic passing motion. Here, measures 19–20 can be seen as a V6/V, V+, I cadence in A where:
- the augmented chord appears in a dominant function;
- the crucial note of that augmented chord (B#) is the raised supertonic, arising through chromatic motion from scale degree 2 to 3.
Here is the entire song:
The Figure or Ground in Liszt’s R. W. Venezia
At the other extreme, we have pieces which use the augmented triad in a prominent, focal way. Liszt’s late music includes some fascinating miniatures, many of which heavily emphasize the augmented triad. R.W. Venezia is one such work, highlighting the augmented chord in general, and C#-augmented [C#,F,A] in particular. This chord receives such a weighting that it stakes a remarkable claim to a kind of overall primacy or tonicity that at least challenges and perhaps even vanquishes the corresponding claim from a tonal center (Bb).
Cohn (2012, 47), after Harrison (1994, 75ff.) discusses a similar emphasis of the diminished chord in Schubert’s Die Stadt, rightly observing that ‘rhetorical garments normally reserved for consonances’ are used in this repertoire to afford dissonant chords a kind of surrogate tonic status (see also Morgan 1976). Those rhetorical strategies are well summarized by the pithy notion of ‘first, last, loudest, longest’.
R.W. Venezia begins with a C#-augmented chord outlining, resolving by parsimonious voice-leading to Bb minor as the start of a rising chromatic sequence which ultimately turns into a long succession of rising (initially parallel augmented) triads that climax in a blazing, forte Bb major. That forte section then moves through more parsimonious voice-leading cycles before returning C#-augmented, now fortissimo. Finally, this C# augmented chord initiates a descent which deftly combines the pitches of b-flat minor and C# augmented [Bb,C#,F,A], leading to an ambiguous close on a unison C#. That final C# is repeated, carrying with it the ambiguity right up to the last note. If the second, final C# were a Bb, then the piece would come down more firmly in favor of Bb minor. As it is, Liszt maintains the delicate balance and leaves us wondering which is the figure, and which the ground.
In short, C# comes ‘first’ and ‘last’, while B-flat probably wins in the ‘loudest’ stakes, leaving ‘longest’ as the primary vehicle of ambiguity. The augmented chord is used considerably more than the average for the time, even for Liszt (a considerably above-average user) though still not to the same extent as major or minor triads. Then again the C#-augmented triad specifically is used to approximately the same extent as Bb major and minor combined, raising the case for it as ‘tonic.’ Whether that is enough is open to debate; ultimately, I hear them in an amazingly effective balance where neither quite shines through.
This chapter has surveyed some claims about how relatively common or otherwise specific particular progressions are. But so far, we’ve just looked at examples. To make sense of those kind of claims, we ought to consider the overall case. We don’t have space here to go into that in detail, but this final section provides some direction towards extensive lists of further examples for you to explore.
First, here is an initial list of approximately 200 examples gathered from the literature. The list could be thought of as an augmented triad ‘canon’ – those instances notable enough to have been mentioned in either the theoretical or historical literature. These repertoire occurrences are varied in function and tone. Many are indeed ‘merely’ incidental appoggiaturas and decorations, while others are fundamental, referential sonorities; some are isolated cases, others are a core part of wider, recurring harmonic processes; some have an ambiguous role, others have a clear musical and even extra-musical meaning including topical associations which generally center on death, ambivalence, or mystery.
Second, head to the Harmony Anthology chapter for a list of moments in the OpenScore Lieder collection that analysts have viewed in terms of augmented chords. The list is sortable by composer, collection, song, measure, Roman number (figure) and key. Each entry includes a links to the score.
- Hensel Extract
- See Cohn 2000, Forte 1987, Gut 1975, Hantz 1982, McKinney 1993, Satyendra 1992, 1997, Todd 1981, 1996. ↵
- See Moomaw, ‘The Expressive Use of the Augmented Fifth’ (Moomaw 1985, p.354 ff.) for numerous apparent extra-musical uses, perhaps most remarkably his very final example, no.213e for the depiction of canon shots in Mondonville’s Daphnis et Alcimadure (1754). ↵