Olga Sologub

The Slippy Slide: Reconsidering the Concept of ‘Wrong Notes’ in the Music of Sergei Prokofiev

The phrase ‘wrong notes’ has become closely associated with the musical style of Sergei Prokofiev since Patricia Ashley used it in her 1963 dissertation on the composer. It captures the sense that certain chromatic notes invade the otherwise tonally coherent musical surface to which they do not belong, which instantly raises two theoretical questions: how can the alien chromaticisms be reconciled with the familiar tonal context, and what implications does this have for Prokofiev’s musical style?
Three different scholars – Richard Bass, Neil Minturn and Deborah Rifkin – have produced theoretical accounts proceeding along this line of enquiry in Anglo‑American musicological literature, drawing either on Schenkerian or pitch‑class set theories. These explain Prokofiev’s ‘wrong notes’ as constituents of the phenomena of ‘chromatic displacement’, ‘structural sets’ and ‘structural motifs’, respectively. While their methodologies differ, all three accounts propose that Prokofiev’s music should be understood as perturbed or enriched by ‘wrong notes’.

My paper seeks to reconsider the concept of ‘wrong notes’ by offering an alternative line of enquiry stemming from new research into the theories of prominent Russian musicologist Yuri Kholopov (1932‑2003). Much of his prodigious output remains untranslated into English, barring access to many Western scholars. I will illuminate fundamental concepts developed in his 1967 tome on Prokofiev’s harmony with the aid of neo‑Riemannian tools of triadic and voice‑leading analysis, representing a conjuncture of Russian and Western analytical thought. With particular focus on the neo‑Riemannian ‘slide’ transformation, I will show how some oft‑noted characteristics of Prokofiev’s musical style, including chromatic slipping and dissonant chords, can be encapsulated within a methodology combining Kholopovian and neo‑Riemannian perspectives. By demonstrating the benefits of a holistic conceptualisation of the composer’s musical language, my paper will provide a new angle on Prokofiev’s music and the analysis of tonality in 20th‑century musical repertoire.