Tiered polyphony describes segments of music that manifest rhythmic/metric layering (Lester 1986) in the presence of polyphony. This texture, though a hallmark of the baroque era, is capable of generating a variety of musical effects over many style periods. This article establishes three categories of the texture based on degrees of metrical dissonance: weakly, moderately, and strictly tiered polyphony. The last form is special not only for its rarity but also for the extreme independence of its lines, which create supermetrical dissonance through pitch cells and/or pitch-interval cycles.
Strictly tiered polyphony figures prominently in Brahms's piano music, where it lends passages an aura of extreme drive and inexorability. Importantly, awareness of this texture can provide insights into Brahms's works unavailable through conventional approaches. The analytical portion of this article examines the Two Rhapsodies, op. 79. The unusual harmonic structure of the G-minor rhapsody is read in light of 1-cycles present within the opening tiered polyphony. In the B-minor rhapsody, the content of three concurrent cycles at the opening—a 4-cycle, 1-cycle, and 5/7-cycle—is respectively reflected in the hexatonic organization of mm. 1–67, in the A section's stormy chromatic transitions, and in the cadential gestures that permeate the B section and coda.