UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Augmented sixth chords in Tchaikovsky's orchestral music Lussier, Kelsey


In 1871, Tchaikovsky authored a harmony text entitled Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony (hereafter: the Guide). Surprisingly, the staples of literature that investigate the composer’s style tend not to thoroughly consider the Guide in their analytical interpretations of his music. When the Guide is referenced, Tchaikovsky’s recommendations are occasionally misconstrued by the assumption that modern approaches to chromatic harmony topics such as augmented sixth chords can be equated with Tchaikovsky’s teachings. Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of augmented sixths contrasts greatly with modern theoretical frameworks. This thesis therefore investigates Tchaikovsky’s theoretical conceptions of augmented sixth chords, as laid out in the Guide, and applies the resulting principles to interpret examples of these chords in the composer’s orchestral music. The body of the thesis features three main sections. The first (Chapter 2) unpacks Tchaikovsky’s pedagogy in the Guide, providing an in-depth analysis of his chapter on augmented sixth chords. This chapter also briefly evaluates intersections and conflicts between Tchaikovsky’s and modern understandings of these chords, showing logical extensions to his rules. Chapter 3 reinterprets modern analyses of augmented sixth chords in Tchaikovsky’s music using the composer’s theoretical principles, providing essential nuance that is otherwise omitting by modern approaches. Finally, Chapter 4 presents an in-depth analysis of augmented sixth chords in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Overall, this thesis shows that Tchaikovsky is an essentially contrapuntal composer: his theory is flexible and prioritizes voice leading and motivic/melodic design. Tchaikovsky’s augmented sixth chords thus cannot be forced into any one harmonic functional category, as their contrapuntal behaviour affords them a unique flexibility to adopt motivic, formal, and contrapuntal functions. The composer’s augmented sixth chords are versatile and inextricably linked with the motivic, thematic, and contrapuntal design of the orchestral works studied in this paper. They tend to contribute continuation function, often creating momentum in local development passages and large development sections. As such, they contribute to formal, contrapuntal, and motivic processes on various levels of structure, including everything from foreground colouration and embellishment, to middleground prolongation and phrase rhythm, to the articulation of large-scale formal boundaries and significant structural modulations.

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International