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Hearing Atonality, or Not Quite

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Most of the music we know is full of tonality, which we experience and understand without being fully capable of defining in words what “tonality” is — what we mean by it. We can even usually find the tonic, by listening and looking at the score, though from time to time perhaps we aren’t certain about what it is or where it is. And we also recognize that there are times when the tonality is temporarily suspended, as in all those passages with multiple successions of diminished-seventh chords in Chopin, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky (not to forget Bach and Mozart), or those rapid modulations with each new tonic coming from the dominant of the previous key (same composers just mentioned, among others) — in one door and out another, so to speak.

Come to the end of the 19th century, and with the chromatic Germans and the modal French, and our perception of “tonality” is stretched to wider-than-ever limits. There’s that wonderfully crazy passage in Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (1895), where the wildest murky assortment of chords goes on for several bars, with no possibility of finding a tonic, before being wrenched into a climactic D major six-four (you know where I mean, just before the death-roll snare drums). And there’s Debussy’s Nuages (1899), in which the tonic triad is B diminished (B> D> F>), and at the very end the palpable tonic is represented by just a single pitch. But we unmistakably recognize these well-unified works as tonal music, i.e., full of tonality, whatever else there may be in the equation.

Less than a decade and a half later, and our ears are confronted with full-fledged atonality — but we find that this too is hard to define precisely. Schoenberg, who more than anyone else launched atonal music, himself disapproved of the term, preferring “pantonality”, though most of his disciples wouldn’t have gone along with that idea either. The problem that we recognize is that in much, even most, of the music we call atonal, there are moments that cling stubbornly and even joyfully to noticeably triadic harmony, even if much else interferes. Schoenberg may have actually had that in mind when writing the “Vergangenes” (Yesteryears) that is No. 2 of his Five Pieces for orchestra, op. 16. You can analyze this beginning in terms of tonal dissonance treatment, but that analysis won’t get you very far; the strong perfect-fifth D-A bass holds the ear first, and the F-Fsharp minor-major coloration completes the triadic sense. The D-A bass forms a recurrent anchor throughout the movement, even in the midst of very complex surrounding counterpoint that has no tonal connection with D as a determining key — but still strong enough to hold the ear in a fixed D relationship. The key is not D major or D minor but D special-Vergangenes. Example 001

It’s only slightly different in the March in Berg’s Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6. The triadic components of this early passage are prominent; most of this chromatic texture could have been written by Mahler or even Brahms; but the piece as a whole is so chromatically dense that minutes pass before any trace of a tonic triad is even hinted at. The triadic layer in the midst of an atonal context is what I call paratonality — the triadic harmony is present and noticeable, but not relatable tonally to any but its own presence.

I’m oversimplifying the musical descriptions here, of course; placing any kind of labels on music is intrinsically oversimplifying, but maybe some of what I’ve pointed to here, labels and all, will help reduce some confusion in understanding. Example 002

Berg’s music is often densely atonal, but no less often with distinct triadic and robustly tonal references and nostalgic contexts — in this regard his music is more closely related to historical tonality than is the mature Schoenberg or Webern. There’s often a distinct reason for this. One famous instance is in Wozzeck, at a momentary climax in Act II scene 1 where a chord of twelve different pitches piles up (from three diminished-seventh chords) in a crescendo to fff ; suddenly everything drops out except a ppp C major triad: Example 003

This C major persists while Wozzeck give Marie some money for her support, depicting what Berg called the “austerity” (Nüchternheit) of their scant existence. (My friend Douglas Jarman, the British Berg scholar, wore a broad smile when he told me of discovering the same C major triad, differently spaced, at the moment in Act I scene 2 [mm. 467-469] of Lulu where Schigolch asks Lulu for money. Lulu is a fully 12-tone work.)

Another brightly paratonal passage in a twelve-tone work is this example from the Golden Calf scene in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Act II: Example 004

How can you be sure that what you’re hearing is really atonal, as opposed to tonality, or paratonality if you buy that concept? Probably the easiest criterion will be identifying a triadic or diatonic pattern of any kind; in very dense textures, for instance, like those in Schoenberg’s Erwartung or the fifth of his Opus 16 Orchestra Pieces, or the orchestral prelude to Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, or Webern’s Five Pieces for string quartet, or twelve-tone pieces like Schoenberg’s Serenade or Violin Concerto, it’s often impossible to pick out any distinguishable tonal harmony, even one chord at a time. Then look at the last bars of Mozart’s Musical Joke, K. 522, and remember how these sound, but in the score you will see nothing but tonic triads in F major, G major, A major, and E-flat major over B-flat bass. (Ten simultaneous different pitch-classes.)

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. I have often wondered if the serialists were teasing us with these different universes. I wonder how many are aware that our friend Arnold wrote a rather massive tome on traditional triadic harmony, and I have always found it intriguing that he used the juxtaposition of the major and minor third ‘à favori’ in the set 0-1-4 in his pre-serial and serial compositions. I have also quite often thought of the Berg Violin Concerto as existing on two planes – the tonal and the serial perhaps being the corporeal vs the spiritual worlds of life and afterlife – given the dedication and its circumstances.

    Comment by Stephen Martorella — August 10, 2023 at 3:22 pm

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