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.

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Steve Reich on Musical Lying

Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez were portraying in very honest terms what it was like to pick up the pieces after World War II. But for some American in 1948 or 1958 or 1968—in the real context of tailfins, Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold—to pretend that instead we’re really going to have the darkbrown Angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie.

Postmodern Mozart, Meta Haydn

It’s almost too edgy to make sense, but think about it: when a classical composer composes, he is composing a piece about composition. It is a Bauhausian structure, because it reveals all its structure, all its supports, everything that makes it hold itself up as a composition. The Viennese composer composes about composing.

Schoenberg rightly points out that the great gift Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven gave us was the gift of elaboration, or variation. And this is just it. When you hear a piece of Haydn, you’re hearing him use one phrase in all possible permutations, variations, elaborations, tangents, improvisations. He takes one melody and gets a whole sonata out of it. The glory of these composers is their economy of motion. What grabs your attention is how they take simple four-note bits and stretch them out into measures and measures of imitation and repetition.

It can’t help but be pedagogical. That’s why people find this music more than any other repetitive, because it is the same thing over and over again. It’s like a manual in how to write sequences over 4-7-3-6-2-5-1. Take this melody and create a piece out of it. That’s the joke, that’s the drama. How will Haydn take this tiny bit of music and do nothing but play around with it for 6 minutes? That how is all we’re interested in. The how is the attraction of the art. It’s no longer what he invents, but how he constantly re-invents it.

And so we simply watch him, captivated by how he captivates the act of composing in a composition. The act of art itself is suspended mid-air, like Dali in his own photograph, in full view for us to observe.