ESSENTIALS of Classical Music


In general, it can be said that the vast majority of the repertoire we call classical music is based upon the principles of “tonality.” Even if you have never heard of the term, if you grew up in a Western society, you have learned to hear tonality. It’s the reason a piece of music sounds finished after the final chords are played. One Ravinia concertgoer once complained that she “hates dissonant music,” but what she probably meant was that she hates atonal music, that is, music not based upon the principals of tonality and functional harmony.

Dissonance is an intrinsic part of tonal harmony. You are probably familiar with the soaring love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s lush, romantic and known so well that it has practically become a cliché. Yet that first note of the theme, which speaks so eloquently of love and longing, is in reality a harsh dissonance. The reason it doesn’t sound dissonant is that it resolves to a consonance.

One can think of music as a sort of crossword puzzle for the ears, operating in both a horizontal and vertical dimension. The horizontal progression of one note after another is what we think of as melody; the vertical alignment of notes being played simultaneously is harmony. Early music, that is music composed before the second half of the 17th century—and before the great bulk of the standard repertoire was composed—functioned primarily on a horizontal plane, consisting of multiple melodies or what is known as polyphony. Most of this music was based upon modality, or a system of modes—the various scales that proliferated prior to the general agreement among composers to stick to what we today call major and minor scales.

Polyphony, or counterpoint, was to a large extent determined by rules based upon the movement of these individual strands of melody; if one voice moved in a particular way, another voice would have to move in a complementary way to avoid incorrect or “forbidden” progressions.

In 1722 a French composer and theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), changed the way musicians thought about music when he published his Traité de l’harmonie reduite à ses principes naturels (“Treatise on Harmony Reduced to Its Natural Principles”), one of the most influential musical treatises of all time. Henceforth, music would be scrutinized vertically as a succession of chords (the sounding of multiple tones at once), with each chord having certain tendencies to resolve to others.

Tonal music is said to be in a certain key, meaning that it is based upon one particular scale, either major or minor. The first note of the scale—the “do” in “Do, re, mi”—is called the tonic, the note after which the scale is named. [For the record, each note of the scale has a name; they are 1) tonic, 2) supertonic, 3) mediant, 4) subdominant, 5) dominant, 6) submediant, 7) leading tone, and 8) tonic once again.] The greatest tendency in all of tonal music is for the dominant chord, that is, the chord built upon the fifth tone of the scale, to resolve to the tonic chord. This is the “cadence” that ends most tonal music, and accounts for the feeling that one has “come home,” that the musical journey is over. Virtually all tonal music is based upon the tension achieved when the composer leads us away from the tonic key to a different key—usually the dominant—and the ultimate resolution of that tension by returning to the tonic.

We have all learned to feel these harmonic tendencies instinctively, simply by being exposed to tonal music throughout our lifetimes. It is these tendencies that enable composers to keep their listeners interested: If every chord resolves exactly the way you expect, music would quickly become boring and sound trite. If no chord resolves the way you expect, the result sounds chaotic and frustrating. What the greatest masters of tonal composition have been able to do is to play with these expectations, sometimes meeting them, sometimes surprising you with alternate paths, or playing upon the ambiguity of certain chords that are able to resolve in more than one way.

As music evolved, composers began to exploit musical ambiguity more and more, primarily by introducing more and more accidentals—that is, notes that are altered so as to belong to a scale different from the “home key.” Throughout the 19th century, composers began pushing harmony further and further, introducing more and more accidentals, producing more and more harmonic ambiguity. Richard Wagner (1813-83) is generally credited with taking this process about as far as it could go—so much so that subsequent composers weren’t sure what to do anymore.

It was the “Second Viennese School” of composers—Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1883-1945)—who sought a solution to this dilemma by abandoning tonality altogether. Schoenberg had begun his compositional career squarely in the Wagnerian camp, pushing lush, almost decadent, harmony to the limit in such works as Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” 1899) and his monumental Gurrelieder (“Songs of Gurre,” 1912). Eventually he felt compelled to create a new system for the structure of music, abandoning tonality altogether. In Schoenberg’s 12-tone system (also called “dodecaphonic” or “serial music”), each of the 12 chromatic pitches of the octave have equal prominence (if you think of a piano keyboard, you will see that while a one-octave major or minor scale has seven different pitches, counting the first note and final notes as the same pitch, there are actually 12 different pitches available within that octave). A 12-tone work was no longer thought of as being in a particular key. Structure was now based upon the “tone row,” comprising the 12 notes in whatever order the composer chooses, and its various permutations—playing it backwards, or inverting it, or even both—rather than upon the harmonic tendencies of chords.

For many listeners, this was too drastic—requiring an adjustment in hearing that they are unable to make, so thoroughly saturated are we by tonality. The result was a decline in demand for new music by classical-music audiences, a trend that concerned many musicians. Books such as Henry Pleasants’s The Agony of Modern Music detailed the growing disenchantment of the music public with academic composers who were still under the sway of the serialists, while others like Irving Kolodin’s The Continuity of Music tried to find historical explanations as to why. In 1976 Leonard Bernstein delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University that were released in book, LP and video format. Naming his series The Unanswered Question after a work by American composer Charles Ives, Bernstein endeavored to answer the query, “Whither music?” He seemed to find his answer in the enduring appeal of tonality, which he felt was more pervasive than some theorists would claim, working almost undetected in some subliminal way even in music that would seem blatantly atonal. Pop music, certainly, has never really abandoned tonality altogether, and in the years since Bernstein delivered those lectures, more and more classical composers have unashamedly returned to tonality in some form or other.

None of this is to suggest that tonality is the only basis upon which to organize a piece of music, and many composers during the 20th century explored other avenues. The overwhelming preference most listeners express for tonal music has its foundation in its familiarity. We all know how to listen to tonal music; non-tonal music requires finding new ways to listen. [See Contemporary Music] [See Musical Forms]

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