Guest Post by Alexander Rehding: Happy Birthday, Tonality!

September 17, 2010 at 9:57 am

This year, tonality is exactly two hundred years old.  She—la tonalité—was born in a fairly innocuous place, the “Sommaire de l’histoire de la musique,” which functioned as an introduction to a Dictionnaire de musiciens by Alexandre Choron and François-Joseph Fayolle.

Of course, there is something odd about giving tonality such a precise age: by the time 1810 came around, was tonality not already old hat? Had tonality not been practiced, even without an explicit theory, since the days of Monteverdi? And had Rameau not theorized all the components that were necessary for a coherent concept of tonality, though without using the term? Or, if we want to insist on an explicit theoretical notion of tonality, did Fétis in the 1840s not do a much better job at defining tonalité in theoretical terms? Is there in fact anything special about 1810 at all? After all, we can glean even from the “Sommaire” itself that the term tonality had been bandied about before 1810. So, is there actually any reason at all to put on our party hats?

Choron, who was the sole author of the “Sommaire,” is usually not remembered for anything other than that he happened to be the first scholar to use the word tonalité in a text on music. Beyond that, he is given short shrift even in the history of music theory—perhaps unjustly, because it seems that he has not been given the careful reading that he deserves. Take Michael Beiche’s rich and authoritative essay on tonality from the German Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Beiche explains that Choron’s modern tonality consisted of the two modes major and minor (Sommaire, xxxvii). What Choron actually says is that in general tonality is understood as the major and minor modes, and he continues in the very next sentence: “but in my view, this notion is neither accurate nor correct.” (ibid.)

What Choron has in mind by “tonality” is in fact much subtler than we often think. He introduces the term as a principle of organizing pitch content, though he does not limit it in the first instance to any particular organizing principle. For Choron (as for Fétis a few years later), there is a form of ancient tonalité, and out of this, the tonalité of the medieval church modes had evolved—and by these he refers to different principles of scale organization. But Choron’s modern tonalité is of a completely different order, and it cannot be explained merely with reference to the order of the diatonic major/minor scale. Rather, modern tonalité is characterized by a rigorous systematic nature, which lends it a perceptual surplus that causes modern tonalité to subsume all alternative modes of tonal organization:

Whatever there might be to it, this tonality is completely modern. One can ascertain that it has barely been around for more than one hundred to one hundred and fifty years—for one senses that it is impossible to determine a precise epoch here. This system is predominant to the point of becoming exclusive, so much so that it gives rise to the question of whether the modern people of Europe are capable of grasping another tonality, or if any other tonality does not present itself to them merely as a system of modulation, that is to say as a concatenation of modes, rather than a genuine system of modes in the proper sense of the word. (Sommaire, xxviii-xxxviii)

Choron’s speculation implies a number of important observations that are relevant here. Tonalité, for him, is both a mode of organization of musical material and a perceptual framework through which ordered musical structures can be understood systematically. It is not for nothing that Choron emphasizes the dimension of “feeling”—sentirtonalité. In contrast to previous systems of tonal order, modern tonalité has the powerful capacity of subsuming previous conceptions, so that the vantage point of modern tonalité makes it hard, if not indeed impossible, to grasp alternative forms of order.

This means that tonalité is on the one hand historically contingent—and Choron dates its first flourishing back to the Naples of Francesco Durante—and on the other hand it is so rigorously systematic that it appears to transcend all previous approaches. With this astute anthropological observation, Choron has crisply formulated one of the chief problems of the history of music theory.

Moving on just a decade, to 1821, Choron’s colleague François Castil-Blaze had already dispensed with these problematic perceptual and historical dimensions. For him, tonalité is a “property of the musical mode that exists in the deployment of its essential tones,” by which he meant the first, fourth and fifth scale degrees (Dictionnaire de musique moderne, 2nd ed. [Paris: au Magasin de musique de la lyre moderne, 1825], 2: 335)

Castil-Blaze’s definition amounts to a considerable simplification of the complex ramifications of Choron’s principle of tonalité. Castil-Blaze locates tonality in the deployment of chords directly. Gone is any sense of the alternatives to modern tonality, the contingency of perception, indeed the question of repertoire and compositional style. And yet, Castil-Blaze’s reduced (or indeed reductionist) definition is not in contradiction to Choron’s careful reflection on the nature of tonality—the later definition is in fact nothing more than an enactment of tonality’s inherent pretensions towards exclusivity and universality, just as Choron predicted. That is to say, Castil-Blaze’s approach is a beautiful demonstration of tonality’s tendency to shed its own historicity.

Choron’s realization of the affective power of tonality seems to capture something very essential about the nature of tonal thinking—right at the beginning of its existence as a theoretical concept. That alone seems reason enough to celebrate.  Happy 200th birthday, tonality!

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