Photo: Violinist Céline Leathead at the conclusion of a concert in 2015.
Making New Year’s resolutions is a rite of, well, each new year.
Recalling a report card’s line noting “room for improvement,” we resolve to do better, do more, do less, do anything to improve our lives—and maybe even the lives of those who put up with us. Often, this involves doughnuts (fewer), sit-ups (more), or a renewed (these are annual rites) commitment to being better organized. The possibilities are endless. But the goal of resolutions is the same: to follow something through to completion, to bring chaos into order, dissonance into harmony, Size 14 to Size 10.
Composers must have similar goals. How else to explain the way that pieces of music almost invariably end with a chord that resolves? With the movement of just a few tones, the final note resounds with the harmony of a long-sought goal achieved.
To put it another way, in less erudite example: Here in Minnesota, the vein of traditional hymn-singing still pulses. You may thus be familiar with hungry parishioners in a church basement singing the Doxology, and the way they invariably break into harmony as they reach the final word. “Ahhhh…” pours forth in an unresolved chord, and then—with the sort of hive mind subconsciousness that passes all understanding—resolves to a major tonic chord for that final “…men.”
After a moment’s satisfied reflection upon themselves, everyone eats. That’s resolution.
I’d be bluffing if I pretended to know music theory. So I’ll turn to the sages at Wikipedia for a definition of musical resolution. They tell me it’s “the move of a note or chord from dissonance (an unstable sound) to a consonance (a more final or stable sounding one).” Resolution, then, is a central component of music. And while we often sense what the final chord will be, the joy is in how we reach it.
If a piece is familiar, we can settle in, knowing that however far the harmonic journey from the home key, all will be resolved. The final rewarding chord will be an apt metaphor for the life skill of staying the course. And if a piece is new, we trust that it will end in a way that will let us exhale. For here’s the thing: Until a chord is resolved, it seems we can’t quite breathe with complete ease.
Granted, throughout a piece, there are smaller resolutions of dissonance to consonance—and these shallow breaths can create a wonderful tension. There is a trust factor at work. We trust we will be rewarded, trust that composers, however circuitous their journey through the scales, also seek a sense of completion. Sometimes they take us right up to the brink.
Igor Stravinsky was a master of the circuitous journey. The Rite of Spring is notorious for its dissonance, which Stravinsky keeps coming back to, until the final explosive, and yet resolved, chord. His Firebird Suite is slightly more hum-your-way-back-to-the-parking-ramp-friendly. And is there a better soundtrack for personal victory (size 10!) than the finale’s brassy chords and off-kilter drum beats? Yet he then backs down to a building series of unresolved chords that have us holding our breath until that final pristine conclusion. Feeling once again on solid ground, we exhale.
Maybe this is why we make resolutions. Even if our best intentions end up getting cast aside by St. Patrick’s Day, we have tried to bring order to chaos. We have sought to stay the course. We have tried. And trying counts—regardless of whether we attain the glorious heights of Bach or Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky.
Can I get an “Amen?”