[Smt-talk] II6/4

Olli Väisälä ovaisala at siba.fi
Thu Sep 5 11:57:39 PDT 2013


Your mail raises the semantic question of the definition of  
"tonality." This is, of course, a thorny issue; Schoenberg insisted  
that his music remained tonal.

But let us circumscribe the issue by speaking of major-minor  
tonality. I agree with you that in this sense music can be more or  
less tonal; one can speak of both pre-tonal and post-tonal music  
having tonal features.

Another question concerns the relationship between tonality and  
Schenkerian hierarchy. I think there is music (pop music with two  
chords etc.) that is obviously tonal in the major-minor sense but has  
only the shallowest hierarchy and for which the notion of structural  
levels has limited descriptive power. Of course one might say that  
this music is "less tonal" or not "truly tonal," but I would find  
this a strange semantic choice, as long as the music exploits major  
and minor scales and tonal harmonic surface syntax. I would thus keep  
separate the notions of tonality and hierarchical depth. I would say  
that tonal music has the potential of the kind of hierarchical depth  
that Schenker described but this is by no means always fully  
exploited. And, incidentally, also non-tonal musics can have  
potential of hierarchical depth exploited to various degrees.

Now to the judgment of artistic value. I certainly agree with you  
that there are several ways in which music can be interesting or  
artistically valuable. Schenkerian hierarchy is a significant  
artistic resource for tonal music, but it is by no means the only  
resource. Above I mentioned pop songs with two chords, but we might  
also think of Chopin's Berceuse which gets along with two chords  
almost throughout, thus lucidly demonstrating just how much of the  
charm of Chopin's art resides in the very surface.

Olli Väisälä
Sibelius Academy
University of the Arts Helsinki
ovaisala at siba.fi

> Olli, I find your statement somewhat puzzling. Do you mean "a  
> general theory of masterworks", which indeed Schenkerian theory is  
> in a way but which is not necessarily incompatible with its being a  
> general theory of tonality, or "a general theory of the tonality of  
> masterworks", which seems to me hardly possible.
> Speaking of Schenker's own intentions, I believe he intended his  
> theory as a general theory of tonality, but somehow immediately  
> added that true tonality was accessible only to the genius. We may  
> disagree with the second part of the intention without rejecting  
> the first.
> When you mention "a certain kind of art music", you imply that  
> there exist other kinds of music (say, lighter music) that may not  
> show the same hierarchies. Indeed; but doesn't that also imply that  
> these kinds of music evidence a lesser level of "tonality"? Do you  
> believe that music is either tonal or not, a mere binary choice?  
> Don't you think that tonality, on the contrary, is something that  
> grew rather slowly and that there are late Renaissance or very  
> early Baroque pieces that are less tonal than, say, a Beethoven  
> symphony, but nevertherless somewhat tonal?
> This, contrarily to what Schenker thought, does not involve a  
> complete judgment of valor, because the valor of a piece of music  
> may reside elsewhere. I trust that it is possible to recognize  
> levels of tonality, which may indeed be dependent on the hierarchy  
> of structural levels. Whatever interest one may have for some  
> recent cases of tonal music, one must admit that the interest often  
> does not reside in these pieces being tonal...
> Nicolas Meeùs
> Université Paris-Sorbonne (Emeritus)
> Le 3/09/2013 20:57, Olli Väisälä a écrit :
>> Incidentally, Schenker did not intend his theory as a general  
>> theory of tonality (as some recent authors have suggested) but of  
>> "masterworks." I think he may well have been on the right track in  
>> that the hierarchy of structural levels is indeed a resource  
>> mainly exploited in a certain kind of "art music."

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