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The Technique of Chromatic Completion in Haydn’s Late Masses

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Frequently in his late vocal music—in all genres large and small, sacred and secular—Haydn employs chromatic completion. By which is meant that there are structural units, cycles of musical time, defined within by the gradual unfolding of all twelve members of the chromatic aggregate. What is remarkable is that the twelfth and “completing” tone arrives in a manner that has clear structural and expressive significance. So much so, one is led to the conclusion that these cycles are hardly accidental; but, instead, were central to the composer’s artistic designs.

This essay limits itself to the six “Esterházy Masses” and the Missa Cellensis (1782). Examples are given from each of these, and are meant to illustrate not only the various “structural” aspects of chromatic completion, but also the expressive intent with which Haydn employed the technique. In fact, the composer apparently often used chromatic completion to make theological and philosophic points of profound significance—including about the relation of life and death.

The final section of the essay makes use of the work of the contemporary American philosopher Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, to place the enduring significance of what Haydn accomplished in this music. Chromatic completion, as a compositional technique, makes a one of such opposites as continuity and discontinuity, the bounded and the unbounded, logic and emotion. As Siegel explained, and Haydn illustrates, “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.”