THE REGION OF THE NEAPOLITAN SIXTH AS SECRET
HOMELAND IN GERMAN ROMANTIC MUSIC
1. THE CHORD OF THE NEAPOLITAN SIXTH: DEFINITION AND ORIGIN
According to Grove's Music Online, the Neapolitan sixth is "the first inversion of a major triad
built on the flattened second degree of the scale. It usually precedes a V - I cadence and
functions like a subdominant. It is associated with the so-called "Neapolitan School" which
included Alessandro Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Paisiello, Cimarosa and other important 18th c.
composers of Italian opera, but it seems already to have been an established, if infrequent,
harmonic practice by the end of the 17th c."
To this clear and accurate description I would add that composers tend to employ the chord
in the context of a minor key. I view this as crucial, since, as the chord expands into a brief,
bright tonal region, it comes to represent a kind of alternate world, or utopian vision, that
reveals the actual, fallen world (expressed in the prevailing minor key) as needy of
As an example of the Neapolitan chord from the Baroque period I give the final bars of an
aria in C minor from a secular cantata by Scarlatti himself, Hor che di Febo ascosi. The
effect of the Neapolitan harmony, appearing in ms 88, is heightened by the soprano's
melisma, though the chord does not progress directly to the dominant, reaching that goal
instead two measures later through a series of passing harmonies. The text here depicts a
flower, chilled through the night, that only blossoms when warmed by the rays of the sun.
(Here I cannot resist a short digression: Scarlatti composed hundreds of cantatas, none of
which, to my shame, I knew until I began research for this paper. And so, trusting to the
wisdom of the history books, originally I began the previous paragraph with the phrase
"Chosen from countless examples" - a fair assumption, one would imagine, given Scarlatti's
reputation an important practitioner of this device. Several hours, dozens of cantatas, and
hundreds of cadences later, I was still searching for a Neapolitan chord, a search finally
rewarded in Hor che di Febo ascosi. The upshot of this is that now I mistrust all things
Neapolitan, from art songs to pizza and ice cream.)
In any case, the practice of employing the N6 chord (as we may now abbreviate it) soon
reached beyond the confines of its supposed birth. Here is an excerpt from an aria in a
sacred cantata, Selig is der Mann, by J.S. Bach (who, in his lighter mood, enjoyed taking in
the Italian operas in Dresden). Again the key is C minor, and in ms.16 a deceptive cadence
leads to an N6 chord adorned with appogiaturas. Scarlatti's vago fior (lovely flower),
warmed by the rays of the sun, has become Bach's Die Seele (The Soul), redeemed by the
love of the Savior.
2. THE GROWTH OF SUBJECTIVITY, THE EXPANSION OF CHROMATIC HARMONY
AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE NEAPOLITAN FROM CHORD TO KEY REGION
The evolution of chromatic harmony over the common practice period is linked to cultural
developments that transformed the purposes of art along with the composer's self-image.
Romanticism bears witness to the high value placed on individualism, and the cultivation of
inimitable styles of music is seen most clearly in the realm of (particularly chromatic)
harmony. It is in this light that we can see the enlargement of the N6 from a fleeting
cadential coloration to a temporary tonal center, or key region, replete with its own diatonic
entourage of chords, a little world within a larger tonal world.
Naturally, such a development impacts parameters besides harmony: as chromatic
progressions proliferate and expand, phrases become elongated and irregular, their thematic
contents more variegated. But as the key of the moment undergoes a luxurious
development, the status of the main tonality becomes endangered. This is unavoidable,
perhaps even desirable: to say that form is sacrificed to feeling is to recognize the Romantic
artist not as failure but as free spirit.
And so it's not surprising to find a wealth of examples in the music of Schubert, the
quintessential Wanderer. The coda to the first movement of that composer's D minor string
quartet, "Death and the Maiden" offers a vivid example of the expansion of the Neapolitan,
with a remarkable twist. The chord on which the harmony pivots is a German augmented
sixth in D minor, which either resolves "correctly" to the tonic in second inversion, or
behaves like its enharmonic equivalent, a B flat dominant chord, resolving to E flat. The
striking aspect of this example is that this key of E flat is rendered in the form of a minor
rather than a major triad, becoming what one can only call a minor Neapolitan. The bass
note one expects in this situation - G, the third of an E flat major chord and (crucially) the
subdominant of the key, is replaced by a strange G flat, and the aura of momentary
brightness associated with the progression is here replaced with a sense of deepening
3. GERMAN ROMANTIC POETRY AND DREAMS OF ELSEWHERE; DEVELOPMENT OF
PROGRAMMATIC ELEMENTS IN MUSIC
Romanticism manifest first in literature, and may be understood as inspiring the movement in
music: the importance of literature for Schumann and Berlioz is well known. In particular
German Romantic poetry cultivated a quality of longing (sensucht), a feeling of discontent
with the world, along with a desire to escape to some better place. Sometimes this
imaginary "elsewhere" is located in the future, and takes the form of a utopian dream. More
often the poet looks to the past - either the cultural past (enshrined in myths of Arcadia) or
the personal past (idealized in the recollection of an innocent childhood). As the movement
grew, the longing intensified, and the transcendent vision tended toward a blend of the
spiritual and the erotic: Novalis' Hymns to the Night are a precursor to Wagner's Tristan and
Isolde: in both cases the goal is death, oblivion, nirvana, which means that elsewhere has
Influenced as it was by such notions, instrumental music moved from the domain of the
abstract (with Brahms and Bruckner seeking to hold down the fort) to the descriptive and the
pictorial, and the symphonic poem was hailed as the acme of the avant-garde.
The famous mid-century controversy over the relative merits of absolute and programmatic
music, and the larger issue of how music relates to meaning have never been settled, but at
the distance of almost two centuries many could agree that the old partisan debates served
largely to obscure a deep affinity between the contestants: with a little imagination we could
devise a "plot" for any of Brahms' symphonies that would cause no serious harm; at the
same time, we could remove the program from a symphonic poem, or replace it, as Liszt
himself did, just before the premiere of Les Preludes, with another, and find the music none
the worse (though none the better) off.
But whatever we may feel today, musicians in the 19th c. believed in a meaningful accord
between word and tone. And so I would like to suggest that this belief, mingling with the
afore-mentioned poetic nostalgia so characteristic of the era, led to the establishment of
something like a secret code of musical significance, according to which (if I read the code
aright) the region of the Neapolitan symbolizes the poet's Hidden Homeland, with the
German augmented sixth chord serving as secret passage.
4. THE REGION OF THE NEAPOLITAN AS HIDDEN HOMELAND AND THE GERMAN
AUGMENTED SIXTH CHORD AS SECRET PASSAGE
Oh, I wish I knew the way back...to childhood's Land.
So begins a poem by Klaus Groth, set to music by Brahms as opus 63, no. 8. The song
exudes nostalgia, from its undulating arpeggios to its dappled chromatic harmonies and
ambiguous accents. But in ms. 9 the longing melts into fulfillment, as, quietly, the Neapolitan
key of F seems to beckon us into the past.
This tonal region depends, for its effect, on its brevity - the vision must dissolve before it
comes to feel normal (which is to say the flatted supertonic must resolve before the home
key is permanently usurped), and this brevity accounts for the presence of only the simplest
harmonies - tonic and dominant. But that dominant of F, that C7 chord, is respelled, in its
last appearance, as German augmented sixth, and functions as secret gateway back to the
home key of E. This affirmation of the tonic serves to place the region of the Neapolitan, as
it were, outside the main tonal structure of the song, imbuing it with the quality of an
incursion, or magical apparition and suggesting that, in Romanticism, what seems marginal
may be crucial.
As for the enharmonic dominant seventh/German sixth chord, it serves to demonstrate that
a key relationship considered distant in the 18th c. (according to the logic of the circle of
5ths) can be understood as actually very near (the region of the Neapolitan floats a mere
semi-tone above the tonic key); this demonstration is accomplished through the chord's
double function - the initial resolution of the C7 to F engenders an expectation which is
meaningfully contradicted by the following, alternate resolution, as surprise yields to
recognition: that magical land was always close at hand.
Schubert's Irrlicht from Die Winterreisse provides another clear example of the Neapolitan
harmony enlarged to become a tonal moment, as the principle key, B minor, slides upward to
C major through a V-I progression in ms. 33. Here, as in the Scarlatti, example, a melisma
adorns the melody, which, as in the Brahms example, is accompanied solely by tonic and
dominant harmonies. The final C chord is in first inversion; this places the fourth degree of
B in the bass and transforms the temporary tonic in a chromatic subdominant, leading to a
desolate cadence as the poet reflects that just as
Every river flows to the sea,
Every sorrow will come to an end.
It will be apparent that, in this section, I have chosen examples from vocal music, in order to
enlist poetry in support of my thesis regarding the programmatic significance of the
Neapolitan region in Romantic music. But to characterize every expansion of the Neapolitan
as representing the Secret Homeland of the Romantic poet would be an oversimplification.
For though to this point I have posited a rather explicit relationship between sound and idea,
it is dangerous and misleading to restrict musical meaning to a particular verbal equivalent: it
is music's paradoxical nature to appear both specific and malleable in signification.
A. Other harmonies of elsewhere.
The brief, unexpected modulation to a distant key, accompanied by the feeling that some
lovely, hidden region has been discovered, is common in Schubert (though never
commonplace); it arises with increasing frequency and poignancy in his late works,
subverting his outwardly classical forms: where Beethoven seeks to triumph, Schubert seeks
to escape. And the exploration of these regions does not involve exclusively the
Neapolitan. In the composer's last piano sonata, while still within the formal bounds of the
principle theme, a soft timpani roll in the bass ushers us into the flatted submediant, G flat,
where we find a melody more expansive, accompanied by a texture more rich, a rhythm more
lively, than we heard in the opening phrase. Eventually, to the tonic triad an E natural is
added: this creates a German sixth chord which propels us back to the true key as abruptly,
and with as much wonder, as we left it.
This too is Elsewhere. And though such mediant relationships are characteristic of 19th c.
music, they can be found in the previous century, notably in the late works of Mozart, whose
Clarinet Concerto, K 622, provides a clear example. In the second expository section, the
soloist joins the orchestra, and, in a transitional passage, a modulation from the tonic key of
A to the key of E, the dominant, occurs. This section is remarkable for its melodic beauty, a
quality (found both in Mozart and in Schubert) that tends to distract one from the connective
function of the passage, with the felicitous effect of rendering form transparent. But equally
noteworthy is the harmonic plan by which the dominant is achieved. A major gives way first
to the parallel minor; this change of mood and mode presages (?) a change of key - from A
minor to its relative major, the key of C. Thus, in a manner that anticipates Schubert, a
distant modulation is achieved through a number of individually smooth steps. Once in this
key - a key that stands outside the main tonal discourse of the exposition - Mozart gives us a
melody on the clarinet, as simple as it is enchanting, both memorable and momentary, and
fated to dissolve into a pedal tone on the dominant of E, as the harmony veers back toward
the ultimate goal of the transition.
B. Other meanings of the Neapolitan.
We need to recognize that there are instances where the "Hidden Homeland" paradigm
seems ill-fit to the feeling of the passage or inappropriate to the mindset of the composer.
In J. S. Bach's D major Partita, there is, in the Allemande movement, an extended excursion
to the key of the relative minor. Nearing the end of this section (ms. 37), the music slips into
the key of the Neapolitan, and for a moment, a dance more spirited than the stately
Allemande arises, almost a Gigue, with flowing sixteenth triplets and jaunty syncopations
against a background of tonic and dominant harmonies. (I say "almost a Gigue" because
Bach's dances are always stylizations; as Proust says of the fictional Vinteuil's imaginary
Septet, whenever a dance-like passage occurs it seems "captive in the heart of an opal".)
As suddenly as it appears the apparition vanishes, as C major moves through an F sharp
dominant and a cadence in B minor brings the episode to a close.
This musical moment, as remarkable as anything found in the 19th c., seems not to possess
that Romantic quality of otherness, perhaps because the minor key from which the
Neapolitan arises lacks that tragic quality requisite to engender the longing for escape.
Bach's Neapolitan region is more an illumination of the here and now, an intensification of a
prevailing joyful spirit, achieved through harmonic and rhythmic techniques, and we are
reminded here of the (possibly spurious but undeniably charming and in any case pointed)
story that Bach, when asked about his accomplishments, responded in a most un-Romantic
manner by stating simply that he worked harder than everyone else.
6. THE CROWNING MOMENT; SCHUMANN'S DAVIDSBUNDLERTANZE
Bearing in mind those qualifications raised above, while laying them, as it were, gently to
one side, we may now approach a work wherein we find a most highly developed and
programmatically rich elaboration of the notion of the Neapolitan as representing the poet's
Hidden Homeland, music's magical Elsewhere. Schumann's Dances of the League of
David, op. 6, is known to pianists, though, compared with his other early dance-chain cycles
such as Carnaval and Papillons it is performed less frequently. The work's relative
obscurity may have something to do with the quiet manner in which it concludes; it
possesses a certain esoteric flavor - a quality cultivated by the composer in his early period
in opposition to the superficiality he deplored in so much popular music of the time - but here
the sense of mystery, the feeling of being immersed in a score filled with private
significations, is most pervasive.
In his thesis on Schumann's piano music Josu de Solaun has remarked on the strange tonal
scheme of the work: beginning in G major (with a quotation from a piece by his fiance, Clara
Wiek, the dances progress through various keys, but most prominently that of B minor, and
the work concludes in C major. It may be proposed that, as the tonality most frequently and
powerfully asserted, B minor can be understood as the main key of the cycle, though,
crucially, a symbol, I would suggest, of the real but fallen world. This would explain its
relegation to a subordinate position, as the poet, whose home is the Land of Imagination,
elevates the key of the Neapolitan (C) to a position of ultimate importance, while the G major
of the first movement serves as a kind of dominant introduction whose tonic, long delayed,
proclaims the triumph of fantasy (the victory of David's league) over the Philistines.
All this is interesting enough, but there is a crowning moment in the Davidsbundlertazne
where, as I see it, Schumann attempts to reach beyond the symbolic and enact a real
transformation, attempting a breakthrough that would sunder the boundaries of art and life.
This occurs in the 17th movement which arises attacca from the previous, B minor
movement. Starting in ms. 31 the gateway chord - a G dominant 7th - appears, and is
prolonged for four hushed measures. But here it functions not as a trap door to the region of
the Neapolitan (mere symbol of utopian bliss); instead it behaves as a German augmented
6th chord (the F natural now spelled E sharp), so that, suddenly, miraculously, we are
ushered into the key of B major, which may be understood as reality itself transfigured. That
is, the principle key of the cycle, B minor is here redeemed in its parallel major form (a
paradigmatic pattern since Beethoven) as, Schumann seems to suggest, for a blessed
moment, all that our hearts desire can truly be. Harmony here cooperates with texture and
rhythm, as the lyrical dialogue of melody and bass evokes the intimacy of newly married
lovers over a quietly insistent, syncopated pulse.
TRANSCENDENCE AND TRIUMPH OR DELUSION AND FAILURE? (ON ART AND LIFE)
But is any of this real? My recent researches in the field of musical perception have
prompted me to question the relationship between what one sees on a musical score and
what one recognizes in listening to music. The gradual acceptance of tempered tuning
(famously endorsed by Bach in his masterful Preludes and Fugues) led to the phenomenon
of ubiquitous modulation, but it also eradicated much of what made each individual tonality
distinctive. And so we should question to what degree the key of the Neapolitan or the
parallel major, or any other key, effectively can symbolize a truly different place? In the
closed circle of twelve identical keys, is real escape possible, or are we trapped within a
prison of our own devising, where the evidence of the notation seeks to convince our eyes
of what our ears cannot believe - that there is an alternate world where things are really
My answer (based on surveys, listening experiments and conversations) is equivocal. The
expansion of the Neapolitan, as I said earlier, is dependent, for its effectiveness, on its
brevity: the longer we linger, the more evident its quotidian nature becomes. It is only
against the background memory of the prevailing minor key that the flatted supertonic seems
bright and magical. So timing in music, as in so many things, is crucial.
And what of Schumann's breakthrough, what of the incursion of the Real in the
Davidsbundlertanze? Can art really bleed into life so fully as to enact a change beyond its
own confines. Can music save the world? The question became increasingly important to
artists in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. And while that proposition may seem a bit
ridiculous in the early 21st century, it's clear that this hope possessed composers, painters
and writers, with enormous consequences as the modern age dawned.
But perhaps it's misleading to pose the question in the manner I have in the title of this
chapter: perhaps the choice is not between triumph and failure, between delusion and
transcendence. There is a necessary gap, whatever the musician may believe, between art
and life, between the sign and that which is signified. From this point of view the role of art
is not to change the world but to inspire change. Those lovely elaborations of the
Neapolitan region which we have investigated here serve to stir the imagination with the
vision of elsewhere which, precisely because it isn't real, encourages actual transformation.
Sadly, the course of modern history tells a very different tale, and many believe that big
ideas, inspired by utopian dreamers, have contributed more than their share to the
calamities of the 20th century. Still, a world without hope is hard to live in - perhaps instead
of blaming music we should admit that, when things go awry, the fault lies not in our chords
but in ourselves.