Research@Schulich: Marie-Ève Piché

Originally from Quebec City, Marie-Ève Piché is currently in her third year of a Ph.D. in Music Theory. She will be presenting her research on 'Swedish sixth' chords at the 2018 AMS/SMT Conference in San Antonio this November.

Marie-Ève Piché is a Ph.D student in music theory at McGill University. Prior to her doctoral studies, she completed undergraduate and master's degrees in musicology at Université de Montréal, with a thesis on the harmonic language of Schubert. Her primary research interests include late-tonal harmony, early twentieth-century Swedish music, and the history of music theory. She has presented papers at the Canadian University Music Society (MusCan), Music Theory Midwest, and the New England Conference of Music Theorists (NECMT). She is currently co-chair of the McGill Association of Music Theorists (MAMuTh), and her research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

What made you choose McGill for your studies?

McGill has a very strong music theory program and it's wonderful to live in Montreal. I had the chance to take a seminar at McGill while I was doing my master’s degree at Université de Montréal. I really enjoyed the class and the students I met were all very enthusiastic about the program, the seminars, and the faculty. I also met with Prof. Jonathan Wild before I applied (he is now my advisor), and I felt that I could benefit a lot from his perspective on music analysis.

How has being a McGill student influenced you and your research?

I developed many of the ideas in my paper in conversations with faculty and fellow students. I also developed an interest in the history of music theory through my seminars with Prof. William Caplin and Prof. Peter Schubert.

Explain your research in three sentences or less:

An important category of chord is the “augmented sixth chords,” which have national names like “Italian sixth”, “French sixth,” and “German sixth.” My paper is about a minor-sounding version of these chords that I first found in the music of Swedish composers. I call it the “Swedish sixth” chord, even though this is no more intended as a literal descriptor of national style than the traditional Italian, French, and German versions. In my paper, I study the common variants of Swedish sixths and their function in late-tonal music.

What led you to this particular topic?

I absolutely love the cello concerto by Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg, but I had trouble analysing some of the harmonic progressions he uses, in particular the passages that include non-traditional augmented-sixth chords. I had the same problem when I analysed pieces by another Swedish composer, Ture Rangström. I noticed that they often use augmented-sixths with a minor third above the usual bass instead of the traditional major third, which creates a darker sonority and often a more ambiguous harmonic function. I was interested in understanding more about what the common usages and functions of these “Swedish sixths” are in the late-tonal repertoire.

How does your research add to what was already known?

The only type of augmented-sixth with a minor third above the bass that had received substantial theoretical attention is the one equivalent to a half-diminished chord, probably because of its famous use at the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. However, this type is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many Swedish sixth variants that haven’t been described yet in the theoretical literature, even though there are relatively common in the music of the turn of the 20th century.

Were there any findings that you found particularly surprising?

I was surprised to find so many examples. I thought at first that these types of chords were rare, but once I started looking for them, I found them all over the place. In the handout that I will distribute at my SMT Conference presentation, I include a list of 150 examples, in works by Swedish as well as non-Swedish composers.

Here's one example of a section from Kurt Atterberg's Piano Concerto in Bb (from 17'00"):

And with Marie-Ève's analysis:

What is an important element in your research that will benefit others?

There is a tendency to deny a functional role to chords that do not correspond to common structures. What I show in my paper is that Swedish sixths are not “just” embellishing harmonies, but can carry functional meaning. Recognizing Swedish sixths as a chordal category will help to better understand how these seemingly ornamental chords participate in the harmonic syntax of the late-tonal style.

What are your next steps?

My goal is to publish my paper in a music theory journal, and probably use it as a chapter of my dissertation.

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

For non-Anglophone students, I would highly recommend the courses offered by Graphos, especially the one on English pronunciation. They helped me communicate in English more effectively and with more confidence.

Where is your favourite place to study?

I typically study at home.

What do you enjoy doing on a day off?

I enjoy running, cooking (especially baking bread), hanging out with my friends and going to concerts.

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

Studying music theory has led me to many teaching opportunities, for young children as well as for undergraduate students. I think that if I hadn’t ended up in music, I would have become a teacher.

What was the last book you read?

Aside from the numerous books I have to read right now for my comprehensive exams, The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. It’s about the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their work on decision-making processes.