Vidas: Hello and welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast!
Ausra: This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better organist.
V: We’re your hosts Vidas Pinkevicius...
A: ...and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene.
V: We have over 25 years of experience of playing the organ
A: ...and we’ve been teaching thousands of organists online from 89 countries since 2011.
V: So now let’s jump in and get started with the podcast for today.
A: We hope you’ll enjoy it!
V: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start episode 632 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Diana, and she wants to know:
“Is there a reason for avoiding parallel 5ths?”
Vidas: Probably, she means parallel 5ths in tonal music, right Ausra?
Ausra: Yes, I guess that’s what she means.
Vidas: What do you say to your students, Ausra, when they ask this question?
Ausra: Well, I have no words, actually. I have heard this question so many times before, you know, I am simply too tired to argue and to convince people. But you know, if you will not hear the difference when let’s say the hymn is harmonized with parallel 5ths and when it’s not, then I don’t think that I could say anything more. Maybe you could try!
Vidas: Yes, good idea for Diana and others who are wondering. Maybe play any type of music, maybe a hymn—your well known hymn, for example, that you’re singing in a church today. Maybe harmonize it in major triads, root position chords like C-E-G if it’s C Major, or D-F#-A if it’s D Major, or G-B-D if it’s G Major. Just major chords, and you will get all parallel 5ths this way, with parallel bass and soprano—between bass and soprano, and then see if you enjoy this kind of sound.
Ausra: And if you will, it means that you still need to have a lot of musical training!
Vidas: And I don’t think people won’t hear the difference. I think the difference will be noticeable if you play the same hymn from the hymnal harmonization and with this kind of parallel 5ths harmonization. This will be very obvious! As a special exercise, I think this type of writing could be done even in your improvisation, right? But it’s a special style. It’s not for everyday use.
Ausra: If you would analyze pieces by early Bach, young Bach, teenager Bach, then you could encounter parallel 5ths occasionally, not very often, but occasionally, yes. But in mature Bach, you would never find parallel 5ths, so I guess that might be true with other composers as well.
Vidas: In Bach’s writing, you would even find spots where in order to avoid parallel 5ths, he makes a very intricate voice leading which is not comfortable for the hand.
Ausra: That’s right! It astonishes me every time when I’m working on a new piece by Bach and I’m just shouting to Vidas, “Oh you know Bach was a voice leading freak!” Of course, I’m just kidding, but he really took the voice leading very seriously. This is obvious in his major works for organ, like “Prelude and Fugues.”
Vidas: And going back to the question about major chords, at one point I was writing pieces for organ just from major and minor root position chords exclusively. They would sound pretty colorful, but I wouldn’t use parallel 5ths very often; I would use strange interval relationships. I would still use probably contrary motion between soprano and bass in order to avoid those parallel intervals but keep the same chord. So for example, if the soprano goes from C to D and the bass goes from C to D we would get two C Major and D Major parallel chords, so instead of this, I would move the bass somewhat downward in a different direction than the soprano and have from C to Bb, and the C Major and D Major I would get C Major and Bb Major chord. Makes sense?
Ausra: Yes, sure!
Vidas: So this is better.
Ausra: And you know, we are talking about avoiding parallel 5ths in the music of the common period, and of course if we would talk about music from the Middle Ages, early organum course the parallel 5ths were perfectly normal.
Vidas: Early polyphony originated from Gregorian Chant in a way that it was like commentary on the chant, and at first it was like a parallel motion in parallel 5ths, and octaves, 4ths, with the chant, and therefore it was not independent, but very gradually the motion because more independent between voices, and composers understood the value of contrary motion and independence of voices.
Ausra: I think as soon as the major and minor triads and sixths appeared in the music, composers stopped making parallel 5ths.
Vidas: What’s interesting… what came first, instrument tuning with major thirds, or musical compositions with major thirds?
Ausra: I think they came together. I think they supplemented each other.
Vidas: Mhmm! Because at first keyboard instruments were tuned in perfect 5ths, like the Pythagorean tuning system, and in that time parallel 5ths were predominant, and sounds of 5ths were also predominant. We also have the earliest surviving keyboard manuscripts from the 14th century. It’s called the Robertsbridge Codex,” (Estapie Retrove is one of more famous pieces from this collection) or a little bit later in the century, “Codex Faenza.” There, you will find lots of intervals with parallel 5ths.
Ausra: Yes, and it was normal to finish a piece with the interval of perfect 5th.
Vidas: Open 5th.
Ausra: Open 5th or an octave.
Vidas: Yeah, but later tuning changed, and the style changed at the same time. We would hear more and more sounds of major 3rds. At first not in a root position, but maybe in the first inversion. Fauxbourdon, it was called.
Ausra: That technique of parallel 6th chords was very common, actually, at one point.
Vidas: Mhm! It was transferred to the continent from England, actually. John Dunstaple was using that at the end of the Gothic period—beginning of the Renaissance, basically, and then it moved to France and Burgundy.
Ausra: Yes, because the major and minor systems were sort of completed during the Renaissance period, and during that period parallel 5ths started to disappear very fast.
Vidas: Except in final cadences. Right?
Vidas: Because it was still a perfect interval to finish the piece or a section. So, I hope this answers Diana’s question somewhat. But as Ausra says, people need to get more basic training first in order to understand these concepts.
Ausra: Sure because the scientist musicologists from ancient times wrote treatises about all these things that we are talking about, and even just about simple intervals you might find many many volumes of treatises written, and so in order to understand that, you need to dig deeper.
Vidas: Alright guys, this was Vidas,
Ausra: And Ausra!
Vidas: Please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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