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Harmonic Moments: The “AURELIA Chord”

In music history there’s a famous collection of notes known as the “Tristan chord,” found in the opening of the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner. Properly the Tristan chord contains the notes F, B, D# and G#, shown in red below.

Opening to Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

These notes simply form a half-diminished seventh chord in third inversion, but Wagner’s novel use of it has led to extensive musical analysis. The chord is usually associated with a sense of dread and is parodied in other classical music.

For me, there is a particular chord in hymnody that I jokingly call the “AURELIA chord”. Near the end of “The Church is One Foundation” there is a IVmaj9 chord on the word “bought” at the end of the first verse. It resolves to a ii6 chord, beginning an extended pre-dominant section.

The ending of “The Church is One Foundation”, showing the “AURELIA chord”

The name of the tune commonly “The Church is One Foundation” is AURELIA, written by Samuel Wesley, grandson of the great Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley. (The name AURELIA comes from the Latin “aurum” for “gold” in reference to “Jerusalem the Golden,” the original text for the tune.) While the standard harmonization of AURELIA contains its share of seventh chords, this is the only ninth chord in the tune. Major ninth chord are rare in 19th century hymnody. In particular, difficult to express a ninth chord since the chord in 4-part harmony because it must contain first, third, seventh and ninth scale degrees (only the fifth may be omitted to retain the chord quality).

Unlike the “Tristan chord”, the “AURELIA chord” does not instill dread, but a sense of anticipation. In particular, the voicing of the chord gives the melody line the seventh of the chord, creating a dissonance with bass note two octaves below. This feeling is not fully resolved until beat 4, with a IV chord, which leads to a ii7 chord, further delaying the inevitable V chord.

This chord is one my favorite harmonic surprises in hymnody. The subtle nature of major ninth chord offers a gentle moment of contemplation in an otherwise stately hymn.

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Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?

Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?

I remember hearing the German carol Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine for the first time while I was playing at a local church in college. I was struck by the passage in the refrain that repeats “Jesus” with two descending minor-thirds.

Excerpt from the refrain of Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine (RESONET IN LAUDIBUS)

This part of the refrain is a meditation on the name of Jesus, whom the song beautifully identifies as “love’s diadem.”

Later I realized that this same melodic motif appears in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an early Lutheran hymntune found in several Bach cantatas.  In fact in many renderings of the text in English (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) fit the words “Jesus, Jesus” to the minor third motif in the first verse.

Excerpt from “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”

Similar to Joseph Dearest, this passage repeats a V-I cadence pattern underlying descending minor thirds, except that both chords are now major.

That Jesus is most-often represented as a minor-third in music is a dubious claim. After all, in most hymn-like melodies the majority of intervals are thirds and seconds (musical “steps”), of which there are four total varieties. Perhaps it’s the phrase in Joseph Dearest which clearly dwells on the name of “Jesus” using a minor third that creates my own association between the minor third and “Jesus”. The match is very effective. The phrase is repeating using longer notes, contrasts rest of the surrounding melody, dwelling on the name of “Jesus”.

Other Hymns

After finding “Jesus motif” in two different hymns, I wondered if Jesus appeared as a minor third in any other hymns. A quick search on hymnary.org gives a clear yes. In fact, some of the most popular tunes and texts of all time, including Jesus, Loves Me and What a Friend We Have In Jesus place the word Jesus over a minor third in the opening phrase.

In most of these examples the Jesus motif is created by the minor third between the fifth and third scale degrees (so – mi). In some cases (e.g. Stand up for Jesus) the interval is created by the first and sixth scale degrees (do – la). Perhaps the most striking example is the opening of the Gaither song There’s Something About That Name, which uses three minor third recitations of “Jesus”.

Universal Intervals

Why does the Jesus motif seem to appear in so many well-known hymns? Is there something special about a minor third?

In a 2010 study from Tufts University, researchers recorded acting students speaking and noted that more significantly a change in pith at about ~300 cents (a minor third) were strongly associated with parts of the speeches as expressing a “sad” idea.

In his famous lecture series The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein tried to tease out universal qualities of musical, including a “grammar” to explain musical elements like linguists explain language.  One salient observation Bernstein makes is that the universality of the minor third as the first musical interval learned by children. Winner (1982) argues that “children in different cultures tend to tease each other by singing a repetitive minor third” (p. 230).

Figure from Winner (1982) showing minor thirds in “children’s chants”

Hence, the minor third may be a more universal interval, innate in spoken communication and is often associated with sadness. It is tempting to extend this idea and suggest that name of “Jesus” (perhaps more accurately, “Christ”) is appropriately paired with a minor third since it represents universal human longing found in the suffering of Jesus, just as the minor third represents a universal human expression of sadness.

But of course the messiah’s name is not “Jesus” in most languages. And most aspects of music are probably not universal outside of Western society. (And humans generally like finding spurious patterns!) An optimistic explanation is that the Jesus motif in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern became an earworm for later hymn writers. Still, there’s “something about the name” of Jesus.