The Disintegration of Tonality

Preface: As I said in my first post, some of the content on this blog will be taken from college essays I have written. This post is an essay I wrote for my thrid year Music History module. For this reason, this text is heavily referenced- if anyone knows of a neat way to insert footnotes in WordPress, let me know!

By the end of the nineteenth century, as the Romantic era began to draw to a close, it was becoming apparent that the traditional system of tonality was no longer sufficient for composers’ expressive needs. In a remarkable mere handful of years at the beginning of the twentieth century, composers increasingly abandoned the tonal language in favour of new systems and modes of musical expression. This disintegration was fully realized by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who declared the “emancipation of the dissonance” and is considered to be the first truly atonal composer.

Before Schoenberg

Before Schoenberg, however, we have a few examples of compositions which seemed to be attempting to do without the common-practice tonal system. In works such as his late Bagatelle sans tonalité (1885), Liszt was beginning to experiment with tonal ambiguity. This complex piece for solo piano is tonal in the sense that it is still based upon and rooted in a system of tonal relationships; however, it has no true tonal centre and is far more chromatic in its harmonic language than other works of its generation, foreshadowing the ‘true’ atonality to arise decades later. The famous “Tristan” chord from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859) could be seen as another starting point for the demise of tonality. This chord, which “has been viewed… as a ‘crisis’ in Romantic harmony”(1), was considered daring and innovative in its day.

By the last decade of the century, composers were experimenting with bitonality, or the composition of works in two different keys, such as Strauss in the famous tone-poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1892), which is written both in C major and B major throughout. The two conflicting tonal centres are the basis for the drama of the piece, and while the piece may still be described as tonal with relation to these two centres, the fact that Strauss chose to use this technique and that the finale does not resolve to either C or B, shows that traditional tonality was unable to accommodate Strauss’ artistic vision. The Russian Nationalist composers, due to their largely self-taught and individual approach to composition, also were notable for working outside the limits of established tonal language and “had developed unorthodox harmonic techniques which preserve tonality as an organizing principle while modifying significantly the classical tonality of Western European traditions.”(2)

Another interesting example is the American composer Charles Ives. As a child, Ives’ music training included teaching him to sing in quarter tones, and he was also encouraged to sing in one key while accompanying himself in another (3,4). This shows a remarkable foresight in realizing the limitations of the tonal system, and the latter is a particularly useful technique for understanding bitonality.

All these examples make it clear that, at the start of the twentieth century, certain musicians felt that the common-practice tonality was becoming an outdated language. Continue reading

Dancing About Architecture

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

– Variously attributed; extremely quotable; and utterly, utterly wrong.

In this blog I intend to talk about music; this will cover all aspects of music that interests me, across the popular and classical genres, and with topics ranging from simple reviews and opinion pieces to more academic writing. Of course, I’m a composer, and so I’ll also be using this blog to promote my own music and Irish contemporary music generally.

To get the ball rolling and get some content up on the site, over the coming weeks I’ll be uploading some college essays on topics I find interesting as well as fresh material. I hope that this will be of some interest to readers, and don’t hesitate to leave comments; I see this as another way to learn about music just as much as a platform for me to talk about my own interests.

Bill McGrath is a Dublin-based composer, currently undertaking a BA Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music under Kevin O’Connell and Jonathan Nangle.