The True Subtlety of Music
If, as many history text books direct us to, we believe that tonality lay down and died between the great 20th century wars, then we have to resign ourselves to having lost not only 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 2,500 years ago, and the system not only had a great influence on musical performance and, eventually, composition, but also became a constant challenge to the ingenuity of composers who had to continually find new ways of making their music from that very well established set of formulae and materials. 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 ‘well-tuned keyboard’ which consisted of 24 pairs of pieces, a prelude with a following fugue, that demonstrated without doubt a system of tuning could be devised to make all the degrees of the 12 major and 12 minor keys be made to sound the same.
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 a confinement or restriction to inventiveness. The key identity was then of great importance. Now our tonal senses are so jaded that most of us 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 Alban Berg to D minor – surprising perhaps for one of the sometimes called ‘12-tone gang’. Schubert so loved travelling between keys that his listeners occasionally became quite unsettled, manipulating as he did so skilfully with devices that are now hardly noticed. Wagner, Mahler and Sibelius all used tonality and key centres powerfully, relying on their listeners to appreciate not just the noise their music made, but also the subtlety with which they had moved the whole musical texture from one level to another.
Not recognising what is happening is rather like being asleep on a barge and missing the exciting differences in water levels as it passes through the locks! A blazing A major chord must have been like meeting God face to face for Olivier Messiaen, for it seemed to symbolise a vision of heaven itself – and G major would not have done it at all! 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? The ‘death of tonality’ certainly seemed to win over the cognoscenti who, perhaps themselves deficient of an ability to recognise key or keycraft, declared all that tonal stuff to be passé. And yet, even though in a primitive way it is still tonal, is there any sense of key whatsoever in the grinding barrage of noise that fizzes from those headphones passing us in the street or the repetitive thumping that make some vehicles almost levitate from the tarmac?
Have we lost forever the true subtlety of music?