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discuss Patric Standford's recent 'Provocative Thoughts'


From: Alistair Hinton, UK

Diff'rent keystrokes for diff'rent folks?

Anyone who already believes -- or is prepared to be persuaded -- of some of what Mr Standford suggests in his article 'Key Question' ought perhaps to be 'locked up' as a serial serialist; no need to 'throw away the key', for that would by implication already have been done ...

Of course the principal thrust of what Mr Standford writes about the history of the use of the modes and of major/minor tonality is undeniable, as are his remarks about use of and response to different tonal centres by composers including those whom he cites -- but ...

Are there really so many textbooks that advise us that tonality died between the two world wars of the past century? -- and are such textbooks truly representative of the majority of such literature? Whatever would Schönberg have made of such an idea? I imagine that the existence in print of so woefully blinkered a vision would have incited him to rage, despair or both.

Why would the author of any such textbook expect to be taken seriously when Chopin, Liszt, Wagner and others had already loosened the bonds of tonality in the previous century and a large number of composers had continued this tradition in the years immediately preceding World War I?

Among the many nuggets of wisdom put forward by Robert Simpson was the obvious but all too rarely recognised truth that we can no longer listen to the music of the past with the ears of the time in which it was written -- for example, we can no longer absorb a Bach cantata as did its first listeners because our ears are also attuned to Rakhmaninov's Vespers, Penderecki's St Luke Passion and Ferneyhough's Missa Brevis. That said, however, has our experience of vast quantities and varieties of more recent music really dulled our ears and sensitivities to the point where Schubert's modulations and their intended unsettling effect actually escape our notice?

Mr Standford cites Mahler, Sibelius, Berg and Messiaen, all of whom had, as he says, strong attachments to particular tonalities and/or tonal relationships and used these to powerful effect, but they did so in a world which was becoming, or had already become, accustomed to music in which the importance of tonality was either cast asunder or sidelined; were any of these composers accordingly persuaded to abandon their use of tonal centres and relationships? Of course not! Indeed, the most recently deceased of these -- Messiaen -- was still exploring such things in the music of his final years, almost half a century after the end of World War II; did he really do so at that stage for the benefit of the tonally desensitised ears of which Mr Standford writes? I doubt that such a notion would ever have crossed his mind.

Who are these composers that were, as Mr Standford puts it, 'forced to admit that tonality had defeated their imagination and inventiveness'? Whilst not going so far as to suggest that there have never been such composers, I have grave doubts that they would have been prepared to risk undermining their credibility by actually 'admitting' it!

So far I have concentrated on Mr Standford's actual statements, but it would be remiss to leave this topic without at least a brief exploration of what should be read between certain of his lines.

He refers to the use of major/minor tonality, tonal relations and modulations but omits mention that tonal perceptions are often matters of degree; likewise, he does not allow for tonal references and relationships that might be perceived by some ears but not by others, in accordance with the extent to which concentrated and varied listening experiences may have sharpened individual listeners' aural perceptions. Furthermore, in confining his observations to music written in the modes and in an equal temperament system whose smallest intervallic unit is the semitone, he eschews reference to microtonal music.

Let us consider these three factors, using 19th century examples to illustrate the first and 20th century ones to illustrate the others.

It is self-evident that the driving home of C major and F major respectively at the close of the 5th and 8th symphonies of Beethoven are examples of tonality at its mot unequivocal and that the openings of Liszt's 'Faust' Symphony and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde present tonality in a much more equivocal guise, but they all remain equally dependent upon tonality to make their points. The modulations in the coda of Chopin's Second Ballade, certain passages in late Schubert quartets, parts of Act III of Tristan und Isolde and Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht are each capable of the kind of destabilising effect to which Mr Standford gives the term 'unsettling', but surely these are examples not of the undermining but of the enriching of tonal relationships, especially when taken in the overall context of the works in which they occur?

I was perturbed when upbraided years ago in an aural training class for 'inappropriately' ascribing tonal allusion to a pair of adjacent four-part chords in a Webern cantata; my retort was to question whether the composer had really intended to counsel listeners to put away the childish things of tonality-consciousness before approaching this work. I did this from a perspective of having received a pretty thorough grounding in the largely 'atonal' music of Webern's maturity and of the leading lights of the 1950s/60s Darmstadt / Donaueschingen / Köln axis before experiencing more than a mere smattering of 'tonal' music; such a perspective may be unusual but is bound to exert some effect on how, where and in what contexts certain tonal references and relationships may subsequently be perceived.

Notwithstanding experiments pioneered by Vishnegradsky, Partch and others, music based upon non-semitonally-based intervallic divisions has remained something of a minority in the overall scheme of things. Even had this not been the case, however, my inclination is to question whether microtonal music would be any more likely to have superseded (in the sense of overturning) 'tonal' music than the work of mid-20th century total serialists did; after all, the very fact that we continue to listen to an abundance of modal music from earlier centuries is itself evidence that such music has never been supplanted to the point of extinction by other kinds of later music.

In sum, none of the above bases for writing music has ever 'died' as such; they have merely continued to enrich our aural palettes in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees. Lest this conclusion strike Mr Standford as sufficiently bland and compliant to support his suggestions about desensitised tonal awareness, however, I hasten to add my belief that listeners prepared to accept this enrichment as such will surely be capable of developing greater, rather than lesser, sensitivity to the uses to which tonality can be put and to the expressive power of tonal relationships.

'Tonality dead'? Were this so, I would already have been tardy in digging my own grave, so I would have been in sore need of twelve spades of equal size related only to one another ...

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Copyright © 10 September 2005 Alistair Hinton & Chad Wozniak, UK&USA


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