tonality

Topic

William Holman Hunt: May Morning on Magdalen Tower, c. 1898.

Music, as a living presence that comes to us, offers itself to us, assures us that we are not alone: that there is something out there in the world that knows our hearts and may even teach us to know them better.

Giovanni Battista Langetti: The Torture of Ixion

Music as symbol is the whole of all things. It is the world. That is why, as Schopenhauer says, “we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will.”

Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights.

I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning.

The ruins of Saint-Etienne-le-Vieux in Caen, France.

Not only is beautiful music being written again but, it turns out, beautiful music was written all along, throughout the 20th century. It simply went underground, but it is surfacing once again. And it is glorious. The tremendously good news is that we are living at the time of a major musical renaissance.

Many are surprised by the beauty of New York City’s City Hall subway station, hidden underground.

Reading the gripping chapters of Robert R. Reilly’s book, with YouTube on the screen, was both an education in itself, and a source of shame to me, who have defended tonality all these years without realising that it is a live tradition, constantly renewing itself in defiance of an academic orthodoxy that denies its right to exist.

Detail of line engraving by D. Cunego: Pythagoras, after R.Meng, 1782.

Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon composers and what they do. John Adams said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” The connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the intelligible order in creation. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy.

A post-modern ear, bioprinted in 3D and cultured in a petri dish. Image credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images.

Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues and sarabandes – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck.

Gustav Klimt: Music, 1895.

The roots of dodecaphony are generally traced back to Wagner, and especially to Tristan und Isolde, which might with good reason be called the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason was a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score was a turning point in Western music: if, after Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself,” one might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.”

Pierre Boulez in 1964, Image credit: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

In a man who was famed for his “modernism”, Boulez’s faith in man’s eternal journey ever closer to perfection seems a quaint 19th century mindset. It is a way of looking at the world that was, for most of us, discredited by the nightmare of the 20th century’s totalitarian conceptions.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Napoleon on his Imperial throne (detail), 1806.

If we look back at Boulez’s presence in French culture, during the years around 1968 when he was the Gauleiter of the avant-garde, we must surely understand him as the instigator of a false conception of music – not only of the place of music in high culture, and in the civilisation that is our greatest spiritual possession, but of the nature of music itself.

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