Tonality in crisis

Tonality in crisis? How harmony changed in the 20th century

Arnold Whittall explores changing approaches to harmony and the concept of tonality in early 20th-century music.

'Harmony is essentially harmonious'. This play on words would have raised no eyebrows before 1900, since all thinking composers and listeners accepted harmoniousness, and chordal consonance, as 'common practice' – the governing concept for any coherent musical composition.  After 1900, with greater prominence given to dissonant chords and tonality-challenging compositional techniques, the notion of 'unharmonious' music became equally salient, and later historians and theorists of music have attempted to explain how common- practice harmony, and the tonal system that underpinned it, have adapted and survived, rather than simply vanishing forever.

Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ chord and the role of dissonance

'Tonality', as a descriptive term for the prevailing compositional system, emerged during the 19th century, and it was at this time that the distinction between consonant sonorities (primarily, the major and minor triads) and dissonant events, whether chordal or contrapuntal, was explored in various technical treatises.  Describing a string quartet, sonata or symphony as 'in C minor' made plain that pitches foreign to the scale based around the C, E flat and G 'tonic' triad were functionally subordinate and, as contrast, potentially destabilising. But they were also powerfully, dramatically expressive.  

Dissonance was already a vital weapon in the armoury of composers before 1900, but the excitement it created in the minds of engaged listeners owed much to expectations of its resolution – whether immediate or eventual – onto consonance.  Moreover, in genres less dependent on the formal conventions of sonata or symphony, dissonance could approach the role of an equal partner in confrontations between stability and instability.  The most celebrated 19th-century dissonance, Wagner's 'Tristan' chord, can be labelled diatonically as a secondary or 'half-diminished' seventh chord on the subdominant of C minor, and functions as such in the first act of Tristan und Isolde: yet in the final bars of the third act Wagner uses the original form of the chord (in ascending order – F, B, D sharp, G sharp) to colour and enrich a tonality (B major) to which it does not diatonically belong.    

Debussy’s Brouillards and ‘pan-tonality’

Within a half-century of Tristan's completion in 1859 harmonic techniques involving enrichments or destabilisations of tonal fundamentals were central to common compositional practice. Debussy's piano prelude Brouillards (1910) offers a sound-picture of mistiness in its initial melding of the five 'black' notes on the piano into successions of triads using all seven white-note degrees of the C major scale, all within the span of a single octave at the centre of the instrument.  In one sense this is already 'twelve-tone' chromaticism, as distinct from traditional diatonicism in which major or minor scales provide a composition's principal pitch material, melodically and harmonically.  Yet few if any musicians would regard Debussy's prelude as 'atonal'.  

Brouillards might not be as firmly in the key of C as a Mozart sonata or even a Chopin Prelude, but C major elements (especially tonic and dominant triads) retain sufficient dominance to justify describing its harmonic character as 'pan-tonal'.  This term was Schoenberg's preferred alternative to 'atonal', and allows for allusions to the presence of many or even all other possible keys as well as C itself.

Claude Debussy: 'Brouillards'

Claude Debussy, ‘Brouillards’, from Préludes, Book 2, No.1, MS Mus 1810

'Brouillards' (roughly translating as ‘mist’, or ‘fog’) is the first prelude in Debussy's second book of Preludes and was completed at the end of December 1911.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

Claude Debussy, Préludes Book II: Brouillards, performed by François-Joël Thiollier, piano (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0142651.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Arnold Schoenberg and atonality

Debussy's preference for overlaying or enriching diatonic consonances, while also retaining octave doublings, encourages such a response to his music.  Schoenberg himself – 12 years Debussy's junior – is generally seen as more intransigent, more expressionistic: and despite his attempts in his theoretical writings to argue that 'atonality' was a logical impossibility, there are places in his music after 1908 where even a pan-tonal allusiveness to several different tonal centres is difficult to determine.  Thus, in isolation, or in a different context, two of the six four-note chords that begin the Klavierstück op. 33a (1928–9) – the second and fifth – could be heard as major triads with an added note, but the chord sequence as a whole is more concerned with charting a specific area of pitch space in the centre of the piano than with suggesting a tonality or hinting at the survival of perceptible distinctions between consonance and dissonance.  

Perhaps the transparency of Schoenberg's dependence on classical form-schemes and phraseology in this 40-bar sonata movement led him to highlight the 'superiority' of dissonance over consonance, in great contrast to the kind of accommodations between tonality and classicism being explored by Stravinsky and others during the 1920s.  

Arnold Schoenberg: Klavierstück, op.33a

Arnold Schoenberg: Klavierstück, Op.33a, MS Mus 1810

This manuscript of Schoenberg’s Klavierstück op.33a in his own hand shows the work as it was to be published, albeit with a number of corrections and alterations.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Arnold Schönberg “Klavierstück op. 33a“ © Copyright 1929, 1956 by Universal Edition A.G., Wien/UE 9773.
Held by© Universal Edition

In some of his larger-scale twelve-tone compositions, like the String Quartet no. 4 (1936) and the Piano Concerto (1942), Schoenberg found it possible to explore his dislike of atonality as a musical concept more imaginatively and convincingly.  In these works he showed how aspects of hierarchic tonal thinking could co-exist constructively not just with 'emancipated dissonance', as he termed it, but also with total and absolutely equal chromaticism.  Since Schoenberg's death in 1951, more radical musicians – not least the young Boulez – have occasionally condemned as regressive the tendency of his later music to fall back on familiar formal outlines, which require traditional tonality to achieve their most impressive effects.  For many, however, Schoenberg's exploration of continuities between tradition and innovation provides persuasive evidence of the power of tonality to retain a positive role even in the much less stable harmonic contexts of music since 1900.

Béla Bartók and 'polymodal chromaticism'

Béla Bartók is one of many composers active during the first half of the 20th century to explore such continuities, and his Concerto for Orchestra (1943, revised 1945) comes at the end of a career devoted to a remarkably resourceful modernist rethinking of the elements of tonality.  Bartók's concept of 'polymodal chromaticism' has a sense of comprehensive derivation from diatonic tonality that invites connection with Schoenbergian pan-tonality, as well as with the formula adopted in Stravinsky's Poetics of Music lectures (first published in English in 1947) describing harmonic 'poles of attraction' which 'are no longer within the closed system which was the diatonic system' but which can be brought together 'without being compelled to conform to the exigencies of tonality'.  Like both Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartók disliked the negative connotations of the word 'atonality', and as early as 1920 defined his 'ultimate objective' as 'the unlimited and complete use of all extant, possible tonal material'.  

Understandably, Bartók's own notes on the Concerto for Orchestra aimed to encourage contemporary audiences by underlining the traditional formal aspects of the work, like the 'more or less regular sonata form' of the first and fifth movements.  As a 'symphony-like' display piece, the concerto has links with the structural symmetries and hierarchic harmonic designs of other five-movement works by Bartók, notably the String Quartet no. 5 (1934).  It also gains greatly from the straightforward appeal of its melodic materials, most strikingly in the fourth movement's juxtapositions of a solemn chorale, a heartfelt lyrical tune (connected to a Slovak folk song) and a sardonic citation of a goose-stepping theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (1941) which in turn relates to a tune from Léhar's operetta The Merry Widow.

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, h.3377.d.(1.)

Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the conductor Sergei Koussevitsky in May 1943 and first performed in December 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

View images from this item  (12)

Usage terms Public Domain

Béla Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra, performed by the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels, and conducted by Alexander Rahbari (NAXOS). 3. Elegia: Andante non troppo. Shelfmark : 1CD0032264.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Béla Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra, performed by the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels, and conducted by Alexander Rahbari (NAXOS). 4. Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto. Shelfmark : 1CD0032264.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Bartók's fascination with folk music did much to ensure that it was the inherent vitality of hierarchically structured forms and procedures that concerned him most productively: and he was particularly alert to folk music's opposition to the civilised, cultivated (but also decadent, even grotesque) aesthetic preoccupations of urban elites in the early 20th century. The modal melodic qualities of folk music stimulated several important early 20th-century composers, apart from Bartók – Janáček and Vaughan Williams are two well-contrasted examples.  All such composers devised harmonic structures that interacted with the intervallic profiles of folk tunes, and these structures reflected the increasing convergence between consonant and dissonant formations characteristic of the time. 

The future of tonality

After 1920 Bartók was also aware of the initiatives of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in exploring a tendency to the all-thematic in pan-tonal and twelve-tone textures. Though both linear (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) dimensions in such compositions were generated by the same pitch and intervallic materials, the resulting music was by no means anti-hierarchical but could still employ points of harmonic or cadential focus that retained associations with the traditions of tonality.  In addition, the connections between major or minor scales and certain modes – notably the so-called octatonic scale of alternating semitones and whole tones – were exploited to varying degrees by (among others) Debussy and Stravinsky as well as Bartók.  

Their music demonstrated the kind of modernist equilibrium between symmetrical and asymmetrical harmonic qualities that remained a compositional force in leading figures from later times like Messiaen, Shostakovich and Britten and are no less relevant to more recent composers like John Adams and Thomas Adès.  When Western art music since 1900 is thought of as a whole, the total absence of any aspect of tonality or tonal structuring is rare enough to be deemed the result of an avant-garde rather than modernist aesthetic stance: that is, of the wholehearted rejection of tonality rather than of modernism's uneasy but fruitful attempts at accommodations with it, usually on grounds of its inescapable acoustic roots in 'equal temperament'.  Only if serious music were to free itself entirely from this acoustic principle might tonality itself become obsolete.

© Arnold Whittall 2018

  • Arnold Whittall
  • Arnold Whittall is Professor Emeritus of Music Theory & Analysis at King’s College London and General Editor of the Cambridge University Press Music since 1900 series.  His latest book is The Wagner Style (Plumbago Press, 2015).  He is continuing his extended series of essays on 'British Music after Britten' in The Musical Times, and has contributed to many recent symposia, including Transformations of Musical Modernism  (Cambridge University Press, 2015),  Pierre Boulez Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2016), and The Dawn of Music Semiology.  Essays in Honor of Jean-Jacques Nattiez (University of Rochester Press, 2017).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.