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I'm going through Kent Kennan's book on 18th century counterpoint, and early on he touches upon some finer points concering agreeable or not-so-agreeable chord progressions. Only a handful of progressions, I gather, are considered "bad" — so weak as to be entirely avoided, perhaps:

Note: there is no distinction made by Kennan between major and minor here, I think (?), major is only suggested for the sake of convenience.

  1. V to IV, both chords in root progression — because this progression is "generally heard as a reversal of normal harmonic progression" (p. 24, 3rd edition) — alright, fine.

  2. ii to I, also when both are in root position. No reason explicitly given, for why this is weak. "The ii should either progress to a V before going to I or move to a I 6/4 if a cadence is involved" (p. 24). I suppose this may be a variant of the "V - IV" rule. Can this be confirmed? Anything more to say on the matter, besides the notion of a "reversal" of normal harmonic evolution?

  3. The first inversions of the vi and iii chords (vi6 and iii6): to be avoided unless one uses them by way of a stepwise bass: "Employed in that way [with the bass passing stepwise], they do not actually express the degree function of vi or iii but are what might be called "contrapuntal chords.” (p. 24)

Not an explicit reason provided for the third rule, either. And this is the more intriguing one. Are there any underlying principles that can be elucidated here, beyond what were the conventions established by Bach?

I would guess that this has something do with the vi6 chord and the iii6 chords being so similar to root position I and V chords, respectively, sounding like embellishments of them. But it seems like there's something more to be said here. Is the "stepwise bass"-exception tied to more specific voice leading figures, similar to the various "passing 6/4-chord" idioms that also apply to this style? I intuit that this is so, but Kennan doesn't go into any further details.

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  • On point 1, there's a fabulous instance of the progression V7 IVmaj7 I6/4 V I in Handel's Solomon (I suppose the penultimate chord is V7 but I don't remember). Yes, it's unusual, but it was far from forbidden. Also I would take issue with "established by Bach" -- these practices were established long before Bach.
    – phoog
    Feb 13 at 23:00
  • Yes of course — I think I apprehend Kennan's presentation of "do", "do not" "do sometimes, in some circumstances", etc., as more or less leaning on Bach as a final arbiter, of the strictures of the style in question. Not least when arriving at fine-grained details such as the viabilty of a vii6 chord. So, "conventions" here could even mean an easing up of stricter practices established in earlier times, I guess. I'll look into the Handel tip! Yes, it seems reasonable that "V - IV" and so on would be only unusual and/or uncharacteristic, not "anathema" to a rich and varied musical epoch.
    – Valarien
    Feb 14 at 12:13
  • Solomon is long. The progression I have in mind is the final cadence of Praise the Lord With Harp and Tongue, which is near the end, or, if you've got the John Eliot Gardiner or Thomas Beecham recording, at the end.
    – phoog
    Feb 14 at 15:02
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Your intuition is exactly right on all fronts!

  1. Yes, ii not moving to I in this style is similar to the guideline forbidding V moving to IV. Since ii has predominant function, it wants to move to the dominant (hence "predominant," or "before the dominant"). Moving to I bypasses this dominant function and confuses the role of this ii chord. (IV is also a predominant, which is why it coming after V is so rare in this style.)

  2. As you surmised, the first-inversion vi is too close to I and the first-inversion iii is too close to V; they often come across as being one of those chords but with a wrong note somewhere. They can, however, be used as contrapuntal chords.

The only other instance I can think of where I may encounter a vi6 that isn't a part of a larger prolongation of vi would be around the nexus point of a common-chord (or "pivot-chord" modulation). Here, it's common for, say, the vi6 of a major key to become a ii6 in a modulation to the dominant. But because it's approaching a modulation, composers seemed to feel comfortable using it.

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  • Thanks! I remain slightly puzzled, though, about how one thinks of a situation where vi6 (for instance) is used as a "contrapuntal" chord. If we are in C major, and the bass goes either B - C - D or D - C - B (i.e. passing over the third factor of vi), I suppose we are very likely to be in some dominant configuration on the first note in both scenarios. The bass goes B - C - D, corresponding to v6 - vi6 - ii, for instance. What does it mean for vii6 to be a "contrapuntal chord" here, exactly? Is this a term that enters in light of our inability to call the chord either "I" or "vi"?
    – Valarien
    Feb 14 at 12:31
  • And, what does careful stepwise movement do, exactly, in relation to the problem of having a chord sounded which the ear takes as "5/3 tonic with a wrong note to it?" I think I almost have this in hand — at the tip of the tongue, so to speak — reflecting on the label "contrapuntal".. But I can't quite seem to reach a strong formulation of it, for myself!
    – Valarien
    Feb 14 at 12:38
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As well as Richard's explanation; there are possible parallel fifths and octaves in moving V to IV in root position; one can easily go move from V6 to IV6 though. Most stepwise motions of 63 chords are fine

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