A provisional definition of “tonality”

Tonality, n. In Western music, a historiographical application of chronological snobbery, arising from the decision by a few men to deify three composers from Vienna, after their deaths, around the turn of the 19th century, whose music they believed to be structurally defined by two ideals living somewhere in the upper west side of Plato’s heaven called “tonic” and “dominant,” and, in so deifying, to define all music with respect to these three dead composers.

All music before this time, then, came to have something of a preludial function—an improvised, sometimes ill-thought, formless groping for tonicization, with one particular German composer of the early 18th century as a final, grand dominant chord that at last resolved in these three Viennese composers. All music after this time, however, had a slightly more ambiguous historical nature. While tonality was implicitly adopted by everyone, it gave rise to two distinct approaches, one which defined itself by manifesting the ideals similarly to the original three, the Classical, and the other, the Romantic, by deviating from the manifestations but still maintaining those ideals. And the dialectic between the Classical and the Romantic shall continue forever and ever, amen.


Beethoven Politics

“If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces.” (Theodor Adorno from Mark Berry’s Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire)

We are Mozartians

“The Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter. Carolyn Abbate’s argument against plot-centered, as opposed to narrator-centered, understanding of musical narrative exemplifies how widespread the assumption is that all music must be essentially temporal, that the disposition of events in time always matters in music: since all music is temporal, Abbate argues—that is, since music always has a temporal arrangement of events or ‘plot’—it is all ‘narrative,’ and hence applying the term, taken in this sense, to music is redundant. But for music written a mere half century before the Viennese classics this assumption of the primacy of the temporal disposition of events is invalid.” (Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow)

A Sketch of the 1749 Conflict

Frederick the Great was young. He had his hand on the rudder and a pleasant zeitgeist blowing into his sails. Johann Sebastian Bach was, at this time, a year from his death, and his whole reputation was built around a resistance to this zeitgeist. It was the same old battle that had started in the 1590s in Florence, but it was perhaps coming to a head here 150 years later in royal palace of Germany. Bach and Frederick were to engage in a clash of ideology, and not on entirely equal footing. J. S. Bach was the last great contrapuntal composer, and everyone knew it. Even his son, J. C. Bach, apparently knew it, since he was in the employ of Frederick the Great, composing music just how Frederick liked it. Not contrapuntal.

J. S. Bach, the father, arrives. Frederick shows off all his beautiful harpsichords and pianofortes, the way millionaires these days show off their cars. As Bach is feeling around one particular model, Frederick asks him if he might improvise a bit. He gives Bach a fugue subject of 8 measures. The melody contains 4 measures of straight chromatic scale. The rest contain intervalic relations designed specifically to make parallel fifths and parallel octaves a likely occurrence. The melody was conceived precisely to make it difficult for Bach.

Lots of people were present at this point, including members of the 18th century “press”. Bach had a reputation of being the last great contrapuntal master and legends had grown up around him about his ability to spontaneously invent a fugue. The ability to do so on a competent level, however, was more or less unprecedented in that age and possibly even in past ages. Given a melody like this with this level of pressure is bad enough. Much more was at stake than Bach’s reputation, though, and everyone knew it.

Bach took the royal melody and subsequently improvised a three-part fugue or “ricercare” on it. Keep in mind: a fugue does not simply harmonize its main melody. You essentially have to maintain two other, separate melodies whenever that melody appears. You must do so while adhering to the rules of counterpoint, which insist that there be no parallel fifths or octaves between voices. And you must do all this while still being artistic in your invention: melodies need to be recycled, structure has to be observed, and, much like a debate round, after the first page and a half, no new material should be introduced, only old stuff developed.

If Bach’s later transcription of his improvised ricercare is anything like what he improvised, Bach didn’t simply meet Frederick’s impossibly difficult taunt. He did so slapping Frederick in the face. Frederick’s whole opinion of music was based on the idea that the Old Style was outdated, incapable of entertaining, incapable of elegance. He favored the galant style, which was a direct descendent of the Italian monodist style. It was much more harmonically based music, the sort of thing Rameau would be proud of. It loved ornate melodies and simple ostinato accompaniment.

And so Bach does his typical thing, almost caricaturing Frederick’s caricature of counterpoint, making the fugue quite grave and serious. But here and there, he dabbles galant style on top of the royal melody. He does what he’s consistently done throughout his career: he imitates the galant style and does so in a contrapuntal way. The result is better than the original galant. And not just better all around, but better at the specific goals of the galant style. Better at entertaining, better dance music, a more enjoyable lightness, a more engaging elegance. Bach was the worst sort of opponent for a young man trying to lay to rest an outmoded style. Bach was just simply better at music than everyone else, and so at a grumpy 68 years old, he did an epic in-your-face to a young, rich prince who hated church music.

The papers, after the event, couldn’t elaborate in too much detail on the broader implications, for obvious reasons. Frederick had expected the evening, apparently, to be a once-and-for-all triumph of the galant style. By tempting Bach’s pride to bite off more than he could reasonably chew, Frederick could essentially take down the best the old style had to offer. Laughter is the greatest weapon, and an unsuccessful Bach would have allowed for some great smirks. But, there was nothing reasonable about how much Bach could bite off.

So the papers didn’t report that Frederick had, in some sense, lost the battle. But not, it seems, the war.


High/classical culture is also self-consciously multigenerational. While a composer wishes to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation, his goal is to find what is comparatively “timeless” in music, and his desire is to please many subsequent generations of listeners. Indeed, whenever an artist achieves this multigenerational success, we tend to refer to his work as a classic, for this reason. (T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 80)

I want to do a review (or, rather, learn how to do book reviews so I can do a review) of this book, mainly because I want to combat the foolishness in its pages with every letter of my keyboard. But T. David Gordon is trying to do something worthy—honor God and solve the church music issue—and we’re on the same side, in that we’re both Christians, so I’m doing my best to be charitable. That shouldn’t, I hope, stop me from pointing out that Gordon has done grievous injustice to his subject matter. He points out at the beginning of the book that he’s no musician and goes on to talk a whole lot (and embarrassingly inaccurately) about music. The problem is not that he’s not a musician, or he’s not “qualified” in the credential sense—neither am I, I guess—but just simply that he’s done some very poor research, and it can be a credit to no man’s scholarship if I can identify some pretty horrendous historical whoopsies on many of its pages.

Hopefully none of that sounded snide. Anyway, the particular passage I quoted stumbles upon a different problem the book has, but that one is not peculiar to T. David Gordon, but is a symptom of a widespread disease propagated by many great men, like Van Cliburn and Ken Myers. I just don’t get it. When has Classical music ever been “self-consciously multigenerational”? What biography of Bach do you have to read to get that his goal was not “to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation” but primarily “to please many subsequent generations of listeners”? It’s almost as if you get the impression that by “timeless” we mean that this music is not a product of its time but just simply art with respect to nothing but beauty. I don’t think Classical music has ever been “timeless”, as if the compositions arose with reference to no zeitgeist but purely the genius residing in the composer. As Schumann once said, if Mozart had lived today (in Schumann’s time), his music would have sounded like Chopin, not like Mozart. How is that timeless?

If Gordon and Van Cliburn mean, when they say “timeless”, that Classical music will last forever or even a really long time, how would they know? “Classical music” is relatively recent. We’re still on a high from it. The length of time between Ockeghem and Bach is about the same as between Bach and us. Ockeghem was extremely popular in his time and with subsequent generations, even with Bach. You’ve probably never heard of Ockeghem. I suggest that this sort of adoration of specific Classical composers is born more from a sentimentality arising from our emotional response to the music than it is from an objective analysis of anything in the music. As evidence, I submit Exhibit A, T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, a 187-page long adoration of Classical composers that hasn’t a shred of objective analysis of anything in the music it adores. To my knowledge. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

This rant is not trivial. It’s really vitally important that we stop idolizing the music of dead people from a different country. It isn’t healthy, because it clouds our vision into seeing Classical music as Good Boy music, as compatible, allied with a Christian view of music. That is a dangerous notion and has gotten us into all sorts of trouble.

The Difference, Put Simply

Sitting here, reading Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Wolff and listening to Sigh No More by Mumfored & Sons (ha! you thought you had me figured), something I read made it all crystallize very simply. Hopefully it’s intelligible.

When two melodies are placed on top of each other, the relationship between the two is what Bach would call harmony. Christoph Wolff says, simply, that for Bach, harmony is “accumulated counterpoint”.

When a secondary V7 is placed next to a V7, there are two notes (at least) that move chromatically down. If an E7 moves to an A7, the G# in E7 resolves to G in A7 and the D in E7 resolves to C# in A7. This is what Wagner would call counterpoint. He would say that counterpoint is just a melodic line inside harmony.

Medieval music says harmony is accumulated counterpoint.

Classical music says counterpoint is a melodic strand of harmony.

Maybe. I think.

Curiously, Bach’s definition of musical thinking…makes no reference to form and genre…. Even more surprising, the definition entirely bypasses the fundamentals of compositional technique: counterpoint, harmony, melody, meter, and rhythm, thoroughbass, voice leading, instrumentation, and other elements. …Bach conceived of compositional method primarily in abstract functional terms, as he also defined harmony—that is, as accumulated counterpoint. (Wolff, 171)