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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Key Question

If, as many text books now advise us, we believe that tonality died between the great 20th century wars, then we have not only lost a vital organ in the apparatus of the musical body without which longer term survival is unlikely, but we are also in danger of losing a basis upon which to understand the reasons for the invention of much of the music written since the middle of the 17th century, the period during which the Modes fell out of use.

Pythagoras first formulated the concept of musical sounds being organised in scales about 2500 years ago, and the system not only had a great influence on musical performance and, eventually, composition, but became a constant challenge to the ingenuity of composers who had continually to find new ways of making their music from that very well established material. The succeeding system of keys, much influenced by those Modes was, within a century of their emergence, already being powerfully explored by Bach in, for instance, the first book of his Wohltemperierte Klavier.

The challenge was taken up with dazzling success by innumerable composers of genius who clearly delighted in the search for new things to say in just 24 keys, none of which were seen as confinement or restriction on inventiveness. The key identity was then of great importance. Now our tonal senses are so jaded that we barely recognise a modulation, let alone the different atmospheres created by a composer's choice of key. In Haydn's time symphonists favoured D and B flat major. Mozart expressed himself quite differently in A or E flat major, or in g minor. Both Beethoven and Brahms had emotionally strong symphonic attachment to c minor and D major, as did Berg to d minor. Schubert so loved travelling between keys that his listeners occasionally became quite unsettled -- a skilful device that is now barely noticed. Wagner, Mahler and Sibelius all used tonality and key centres to powerful ends, and the blaze of A major must have meant a great deal to Messiaen.

It is therefore worth wondering what has happened to the musical perception of our times that has made us so insensitive to keys now. Why were composers once able to make such glorious work from the same modal materials for over two millennia, and then for a while do the same with tonality, but by the 1920s, after a mere 300 years, be forced to admit that tonality had defeated their imagination and inventiveness? It certainly seems to have won over the cognoscenti who, perhaps themselves deficient of an ability to recognise key or keycraft, have declared it passé.

Copyright © 30 August 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK





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