I've been talking with my sophomores about mode mixture, and this next week we get to the use of mode mixture as text painting in German Lieder. Steven Laitz talks about the dramatic role of the bVI, using Schumann's "Waldesgesprach" as an example. The bVI is supposed to create mystery through its otherworldly sound, foreshadowing the revelation that the woman encountered in the woods is not human. The harmony certainly is unexpected, taking a deceptive progression V - vi which is already surprising and adding extra chromaticism to it. But does that chord, really a key area in this song, sound otherworldly? Popular music and contemporary classical music has blurred the lines between major and minor modes so much – with the use of polymodality, pantonality, and world music modalities – that a simple borrowing from the parallel minor may not be striking anymore. We can still make statements about Schumann's efforts at text painting, since in the 1840s a bVI would definitely sound otherworldly. But can we assume that a typical audience will still find it so? I also wrestle with this issue of recontextualization when talking about parallel fifths and octaves with my first year students. I assure them that Bach kills a kitten every time they write one, because I can't rely upon their ears to tell them that it sounds wrong. Power chords and Debussy have broken the dependent voice taboo, so I have to rely upon stylistic practice to teach the concept.
This leads to the question, why teach it then? The quick answer is that enough Common Practice Period music is still performed that the students need to understand how it works, and how subsequent styles differ from it. But as we travel further and further away from the 18th century, I wonder how much class time we theorists will be able to devote to the stylistic nuances of that time period, at the sacrifice of 20th and 21st century stylistic practices.