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Tonality at the End of the Nineteenth Century

M.Tevfik DORAK

Music written between 1600 and 1900 in Western Europe was mainly tonal. The same generalization cannot be made for the twentieth century music. What happened at the end of the nineteenth century to result in the dissolution of tonality? Wagner's Tristan und Isolde written in 1859 is generally thought to be the beginning of the events led to the dissolution of tonality through the increased use of chromaticism. What started to happen then was using a higher proportion of tonally ambiguous chords, which made the sense of tonality more fluid. The Tristan chord is itself is ambiguous as it is not clear whether it is an augmented sixth, diminished seventh, chromatically altered dominant seventh or supertonic seventh. The lack of a clear cadence also contributes to the unclear tonal direction. In the whole prelude there is no perfect (closed) cadence or enough strong chord progressions (chords moving a fourth or fifth apart) to give the piece any tonal identity. The most frequent interval the voices use to move is a semitone. This frequent semitonic movement creates a different pitch system (the chromatic system). In summary, it is the combination of the semitonal linear movement, the lack of perfect cadence and the high level of dissonance, which is responsible for the Wagnerian unending melody. What used to be used in the Classical era, in the development section of a symphony (fluid tonality, avoiding a tonal centre, high dissonance level, motivic development, sequential progressions, and open structure to make the double return a big event) became dominant in the whole piece. No clear phrase structure, no balanced thematic statements and no closed paragraphs can be seen. Surely, Chopin (A minor Mazurka Op.17/4; Etude Op.10/11) and Liszt had used chromatic harmony or even chromatic frustration (chromaticism without resolution with a cadence) before. Liszt, in his symphonic poem Orpheus, prefers the music to sound tonally ambiguous. In the beginning (theme C), the tonic chord oscillates between major and minor modes. In the coda, he uses a series of unrelated chords without modulating and puts a diminished seventh at the end. All of these are aimed to weaken the onward motion of traditional tonality. Also by giving a greater stress on thematicism and repeating themes disregarding their tonal hierarchy, the overall direction becomes weaker. In La lugubre gondola No.1, Liszt uses the whole-tone scale, and semitonally-moving chromatic harmony. But it was Tristan und Isolde that stimulated the widespread increase in dissonance level, chromatic notes and harmonic fluidity in the music of the late nineteenth century. Borodin's In the Steps of Central Asia and Satie's Gymnopedie No.1 are other examples of tonal/modal (Aeolian and Dorian modes, respectively) ambiguity from the late nineteenth century. Mussorgsky's song With Nanny also uses whole-tones as an influence of modal Russian folk songs, the harmonic vocabulary is very heterogeneous: using triads assembled out of the whole-tone scale or with seconds. In the whole-tone scale, which is frequently used in folk songs, all intervals are equal and there is no hierarchy. In the beginning of the twentieth century, another Russian, Alexander Scriabin (also spelled as Skryabin) employed unusual scales and harmonies especially in the tone poem Prometheus (1911), and in the Symphony No.3 'the Divine Poem' (1903). One of his innovations was the mystic chord, which consists of a series of fourths (see Glossary).

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the reaction against Romanticism was most obvious in the works of Debussy and Ravel (the impressionists), and in the exotic chromaticism of Stravinsky and Scriabin. In the Austria-German school, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern appeared as atonal expressionists. The two (new) main tendencies in the twentieth century music are: (1) Extended tonality, which is freely chromatic music within an overall harmonic-tonal structure. Music by Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov and early Schoenberg falls into this category. (2) Twelve-tone technique: All twelve semitones in a scale have equality and there is no hierarchy. This trend was led by Schoenberg (1872-1951). There is nothing in the twelve-tone technique that precludes tonal organization. Indeed, Alban Berg uses this system in his violin concerto making use of major and minor triads as well as the whole-tone scale. The music of Schoenberg and some of his followers is written with a conscious rejection of tonal relationships and thus must be considered atonal music.

After the first world war, neo-classicism represented by Stravinsky (post-1920 works such as capriccio for piano and wind; piano concerto; Pulcinella; Symphony in C), Prokofiev (classical symphony), Richard Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Hindemith (the song cycle Das Marienleben; the opera Cardillac) tried to restore the eighteenth century principles of order while maintaining a distinctively twentieth century tone. In England, Vaughan Williams' violin concerto represented the same trend. Meanwhile, composers such as Elgar, Delius and Sibelius remained loyal to the Romantic symphonic tradition.

A little reminder from the Glossary:

Mystic chord: A chromatic chord developed by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) in the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of a series of fourths (C, F#, Bb, E, A and D).

Neoclassicism: The musical movement of the post first world war period aiming to revive the musical forms and textures of the pre-Romantic era. Stravinsky's works after 1920, Prokofiev and Hindemith's works are some of the examples.

Tonal ambiguity: Diminished sevenths, tritones (whole tone scale) [tonally polyvalent chords]; semitonal progressions (twelve note scale); extended tonality (free chromaticism, modal inflections); lack of cadences (fluid tonality); oscillating major-minor triads; empty fifths; high level dissonance; unresolved appoggiatura chords. Increased use of these features resulted in the collapse of the tonal system in music.

Twelve-tone technique: A system devised by Schoenberg using all twelve chromatic notes of the scale and denying a tonal centre.

Whole-tone scale: A scale consisting of whole tones only. It lacks the perfect fifth, the perfect fourth and the leading note of the traditional tonal scale. Because each interval is equal, there is no tonal centre either.  Any triad in this scale would be an augmented one, which is tonally polyvalent like the diminished seventh chord. Its exploitation by Debussy is one of the reasons for the dissolution of tonality in the twentieth century.

M.Tevfik DORAK, B.A. (Hons)

Last edited on 9 May 2006

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