Through much of its history, tonality has been described in terms of law. And yet it represents the composer’s negotiation of an individual identity within the socialized world of pitch relations, and as such took on more and more of a performative aspect across the twentieth century. With this shift, composers of art music readdressed the basic question: what kind of relation between the individual and the larger social order does art music demonstrate? Tonality is almost infinitely particularized, but we can go even further to say that tonal music is constituted in the act of its description: to describe a sub-type of tonal composition, to name its particular system of contraventions against tonal “law,” is to comprise that sub-type. Tonality, in short, is a performative in both J.L. Austin’s and Judith Butler’s sense. The differences between normativity and performativity boil down to the relation of the individual to the general: if the law presumes compliant subjects, performative theory assumes a certain manner of individual failure, an essential and defining form of noncompliance. Legal theorists justify a normative conception of the law that will in turn justify specific legal decisions; performativity, on the other hand, precludes the kind of power structure that allows and perpetuates such dualisms. In looking into these aspects of tonal discourse, we arrive at the subject of tonal theory itself and the question of what that music-analytic term might actually mean. We find in the end that tonality resembles law only in a dialectical or Foucauldian sense, with principles given their significance by deviation from said principles: it is the contraventions that define the rule.
Key words: conformity, identity, individuality, law¯philosophy, legality, normative, performative, punishment, tonality.
A lo largo de su historia, la tonalidad ha sido descrita en términos de ley. Sin embargo, la tonalidad representa la negociación de una identidad individual que el compositor hace dentro del mundo socializado de relaciones de sonidos, por lo cual ésta ha obtenido cada vez más una cualidad performativa a lo largo del siglo veinte. Con este cambio, los compositores de música de concierto se ven obligados a re-articular la antigua pregunta: ¿qué tipo de relación se evidencia en la música de concierto de la tradición occidental entre el orden individual y el orden social? La tonalidad es casi infinitamente particularizada; sin embargo podríamos ir más allá al plantear que la música tonal es constituida en el acto de su descripción: al describir un sub-tipo de composición tonal, al nombrar su sistema particular de contravenciones a la “ley tonal”, estamos conformando ese sub-tipo. En pocas palabras, la tonalidad es performativa en el sentido tanto de J.L. Austin como de Judith Butler. Las diferencias entre normatividad y performatividad se resumen en la relación de lo individual con lo general: si la ley supone sujetos dóciles la teoría performativa, asume una cierta forma de falla individual, una forma esencial y definitoria de indocilidad. Los teóricos legales justifican una concepción normativa de la ley que en turno justifica decisiones legales específicas; la performatividad, por otro lado, excluye el tipo de estructuras de poder que permiten perpetuar ese tipo de dualismos. Al analizar estos aspectos del discurso tonal llegamos a la teoría tonal misma y a la pregunta de lo que ese término músico-analítico puede significar. Al final encontramos que la tonalidad se parece a la ley sólo en un sentido dialéctico o foucoultiano, con principios que obtienen significado cuando hay una desviación de ese principio: son las contravenciones las que definen la regla.
Palabras clave: conformidad, identidad, individualidad, ley-filosofía, legalidad, normatividad, performatividad, castigo, tonalidad.
François-Joseph Fétis, the first systematic scholar of tonal history, referred to a "law of tonality” in the 1840s. Over the century that followed, writers continued to develop tonality as an a priori, binding, and indeed legalist concept. Philosophies of law center upon definitions and essences — in short upon normativity. This is true both of positivist legal theories, which take an unchanging view of statutes, and of so-called natural law and its appeal to basic moral truths. Some 70 years after Fétis, Arnold Schoenberg — the most infamous of post-tonal composers — declared these tonal legalist conceptions at an end, at least for himself. He gave some indication of what a post-legalist music might entail when he wrote in his Harmonielehre (1911) that “I do not, as apparently all theorists before me have done, consider tonality an eternal law, a natural law of music, even though this law is consistent with the simplest conditions of the natural model…” (Schoenberg 1978: 27)
Tonality represents a point where the individual composer negotiates her own identity within the socialized world of pitch relations, and as such it took on more and more of a performative aspect across the previous century. The concept Schoenberg described could be called performative rather than normative in that it represents a fragmented concept, one centering less on precept than on individual creative action. With this shift, composers of art music had to readdress the basic question: what kind of relation between the individual and the larger social order does art music demonstrate? One can speak of gender and sexuality as laws, as codes of conduct and expectation — a set of “male” laws, a series of “heterosexual” laws — to which the individual aspires as a way of entering society. So legal thinking generalizes while performance theory works, not to subvert the normativity of gender so much as to expose it. Performativity shows the subject grappling with imposed norms as “an assignment which we never quite carry out according to expectation, so that we never quite inhabit the gender norms or ideals we are compelled to approximate.” (Culler 1997: 104) The differences between normativity and performativity boil down to the relation of the individual to the general: if the law presumes compliant subjects, with specific exceptions that only prove the rule, performative theory assumes a certain manner of individual failure, an essential and defining form of noncompliance.
Judith Butler, following Michel Foucault, links the disparity between normative and performative to different understandings of power. Legal theorists justify a normative conception of the law that will in turn justify specific legal decisions. There are no gray areas in criminal liability, at least in U.S. legal discourse, only accepted immunities of self-defense, insanity, and so forth. (Fletcher, 1996: 71-73) Performativity, on the other hand, precludes the kind of power structure that allows and perpetuates such dualisms. Butler describes the Foucauldian shattering of single “subject” into multiple practices as follows:
The shift from the subject of power to a set of practices in which power is actualized in its effects signals, for Foucault, a departure from the conceptual model of sovereignty that, he claims, dominates thinking on politics, law, and the question of right. Among the very practices that Foucault counters to that of the subject are those that seek to account for the formation of the subject itself: ‘let us ask… how things work at the level of on-going subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate our behaviours, etc.’ (Butler, 1997:79)
Performative ideas came about in the wake of such decenterings, and allowed theorists to reject binary power constructs. It is no coincidence that Foucault’s decentering influence should be felt so keenly in the twin domains of sexuality and power, discourses once marked by — to quote Foucault himself — “that solid and global kind of domination that one person exercises over others, or one group over another…”
No writer on music has yet explored these differences between law and performative identity, and one reason must be the offhand way that musicians have usually invoked musical “laws.” Legal authorities of positivist mindset work to separate these meanings: for instance, a judge might be criticized for invoking “Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards” in a sodomy case. In music, however, these various manifestations of “law” are often ill-defined and thrown together in support of normative thinking. Schoenberg himself, though connecting with ideas of law in significant ways, also confused the several senses of law in his writings, habitually conflating the natural, the musical, and the theological. Tonality is especially susceptible to various invocations of law, most conspicuously with the “natural” precept of physical acoustics, specifically the primacy of the octave, fifth, and third intervals within the overtone series.
Across the century and a half or so after Fétis, concepts of the “law of tonality” have differed in large and small ways from one polemicist to another. In looking into these aspects of tonal discourse, we arrive at the subject of tonal theory itself and the question of what that music-analytic term might actually mean. We find in the end that tonality resembles law only in a dialectical or Foucauldian sense, with principles given their significance by deviation from said principles: it is the contraventions that define the rule.
1. early tonality
Writers after Jean-Philippe Rameau (the Traité de l'harmonie, 1722) described and theorized tonality as (1) an enterprise bound by law in the sense of a natural principle, and then as (2) governed by law in the sense of a theoretical generalization cutting across individual compositional practice and choice. While tonality in the first phase was consistent with ideas of law as a nature-given singularity, in phase two this law-aspect became a matter of constraint — it turned into a law in the ethical or jural, rather than scientific, sense. The first sense is the sense subscribed to by philosophers when they speak of law as a generalizable truth. Musical law in the first meaning would regiment pitch relationships, while the second would regulate the people devising those pitch relationships: a description of nature was expanded into an ideology.
Within the first part of this history, tonality was considered natural in the sense of being self-evident, replicable, and largely inalterable. Those understanding tonality along these lines often aligned music with the “new science” of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Those taking such a perspective saw the modal pluralism of medieval practice giving way to the centralized system of tonal music, the variety of the church modes to an elegant duality of major and minor. In this view, tonal practice and theory repudiated the plurality of the church modes - and, in exchanging more than five scale-types for only two, represented a rationalized centralization. Rameau’s accomplishment was showing the empirical bias of musical practice in terms of a single natural principle: that structural foundation and generator of harmonies in a work that Rameau called the fundamental bass. When he redrew the figured bass for a passage in Corelli's Op.5, throwing out the composer’s own description of the chords and supplying his own, he did so not to re-interpret the music so much as to correct a hearing of it by aligning it with this natural principle. (see Christensen, 2004: 129-131)
When Fétis referred to a “law of tonality” in his later writings, roughly a century after Rameau’s, he meant to distinguish between the relatively unlegislated modal practice of placing root-position triads on most any degree of the scale, and the necessary prominence of a single essential tonic chord in tonality. Fétis wrote in his Esquisse de L’histoire de L’harmonie (1840): “Now let us suppose the augmented-sixth chord f, a, d-sharp can be spontaneously changed into the seventh chord f, a, eb; an unexpected modulation will result from it since, following the law of tonality, the seventh chord f, a, eb, being the dominant, immediately determines the key of b-flat.” (Fétis, 1994 : 135) Both Rameau and Fétis invoke law, but Rameau invokes the basse fondamentale while Fétis generalizes musical relationships according to a circularity between definition-based-on-practice and practice-based-on-definition. A law is more obviously political when it suggests a specific outcome, less ostensibly so when it summons external principles — whether it be the morality invoked by natural-law philosophers or Rameau’s Newtonian basse fondamentale.
Moving ahead yet another century, we find Pierre Boulez taking an obviously historicist view of tonality’s beginnings: “the rational appeal of tonality… and the new possibility of generalizing ¯ even standardizing ¯ musical relationships was essential to the further development of the art. Without tonality music might well have either become repetitious or else declined into a kind of mannerism overwhelmed by sterile complications.” He goes on to say in the same essay that serialism of the post-WWII Darmstadt School contravened tonality, but paid a price in “sacrificing the power of immediate generalization characteristic of tonal functions.” Science had already found it necessary to do much the same thing, said Boulez, when it abandoned abstractions like “pure” - as opposed to applied - mathematics and ceased its appeals to “the laws of nature” like Newton’s law of gravitation, Mendel’s laws, and the ideal gas laws. (Boulez, 1986 : 37) Since there are so many more scale-types in the modes than there are in tonality, multiple arrangements of whole and half steps, it is harder to hypothesize the interval makeup of a chord on a particular scale degree or how such a sonority might relate to a chord on another degree. In tonality, by contrast, standard cadence progressions - and wider music-structural spans, incurring a different sense of structure - are made possible by the generalizeable relations between chords on degrees 2, 4, 5, 6, and 1.
In correlating tonal practice with scientific laws, Boulez doubtless hoped to make that practice more concrete and specific. Other writers have tried to do the same by associating tonality with 18th-century social laws, describing modality’s “passage” to tonality as a consolidation of cultural or political authority. Such conclusions are all the more tempting when seen against the huge socioeconomic changes that arrived later in Britain and the continent, changes that could inspire simplistic notions of tonality as some kind of capitalist language. Susan McClary takes this perspective, describing tonality in the Enlightenment as a means of articulating “a social world organized by means of values such as rational control and goal-oriented striving for progress - the values upon which leaders of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie traditionally have grounded their claim to legitimacy, authority, and ‘universality.’” (McClary, 1986: 135) She presents the kind of conceptual model of sovereignty that Foucault aimed to destabilize, defining the subject of power in terms of monolithic tonal authority while Foucauldian destabilization would show contravention of such restrictions or a failure to perpetuate them — and thereby illuminate the rite of passage to individual style.
When at the turn of the 20th century many composers contravened tonality as described above, they induced a crisis of definition and demarcation - such that Paul Hindemith wrote, in 1949, that “the concept of tonality and its appropriate treatment appears to be so diversified today as to lack any unified basis.” (Hindemith, 1960:110) Schoenbergian dissonance and Debussy scale-types spurred theorists Heinrich Schenker and Adele Katz to draw up definitions of tonality as a normative practice - effectively closing it off from future particularization and implying its death as a living compositional language. Schenker’s rejection of Schoenberg was decisive: he scathingly portrayed his fellow Viennese as “the godfather of new chords” and as a dangerous opportunist who strove “for expansion and disintegration.” Other theorists, differing from Schenker, wished to broaden rather than narrow off definitions of tonality so that some of the new compositional practices could be included under the tonal rubric. Here one could mention Rudolph Reti’s classification of Debussy not in terms of non-tonality, which is how Schenker and Katz classified him, but in terms of “melodic tonality.” In Reti’s view, Debussy also helped usher in a “third tonal state” - accessory to tonality as well as atonality - that Reti called pantonality. The French composer, in his view, “built a new positive concept of tonality in music.” (Reti, 1958: 19-30)
Joseph Yasser accounted for the tonal-atonal relation in rather stranger terms, providing a Hegelian rendition that manages to combine the conservatism of Schenker with the historical tripartism of Reti. According to Yasser, musical systems don’t reach plateaus or points of maturity, but are in a constant state of evolution. He saw tonality relating to atonality as thesis to antithesis, but tonality was preceded in this historical scheme by the same kind of opposition between “infra-tonality” and “infra-atonality.” Infra-tonality was based in an infra-diatonic scale of five regular degrees (the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th degrees of the scale) supplemented by two others (the 3rd and 7th degrees). Likewise, the contradiction between tonality and atonality becomes synthesized at the level of “supra-tonality,” where twelve regular degrees (the 12 chromatic pitches) are accompanied (or perhaps embellished) by the seven auxiliary degrees corresponding to the diatonic scale. This continual succession through “evolutionary stages” might seem so deterministic as to leave even less up to individual compositional choice than the Schenkerian view. But compositional choice lies with the precise articulation of such theses, antitheses, and syntheses. For example, the tonal composer might find herself poised between what Yasser calls “victorious and organized Tonality” and “the relaxing effect of ‘all-permitting’ Atonality,” before the cycle will repeat itself. At this juncture she feels mired in the frustrating and confining particularity of a certain mannerist tonality, and manages to escape therefrom (Yasser says the composer “declares” the new level) to an antithetical and liberating state of atonality:
[It is the] impossibility on the part of the modern composer to express himself adequately and in comparatively simple terms in the new ‘supra-diatonic’ language and to create at least a rudimentary musical grammar for it under existing conditions, which drives him to hypertrophic and groundless harmonic complication and to the proclamation of Atonality, in its most acute form, already long outgrown by him. (Yasser, 1932: 342)
These various and often contradictory arguments over tonality in the 20th century differ most fundamentally in the way they align particularity with generalization. For Schenker, the threat posed by the particularity of atonality - a particularized kind of music that dared to abandon the generality of tonal practice, or indeed generality of just about any kind - necessitated codification and defense of that generality. As Fred Maus and others have pointed out, following ideas from Foucault, histories of sexuality hold this same process of defining normative practice in the face of deviance: in music tonality was defined after the appearance of atonality, just as heterosexuality was defined after “the invention of the homosexual.” (See Maus, 2004: 153-175) In attempting a single and universal theory of tonality, Schenker developed tonality’s capacity for generalization while the “atonal” composers desired local specificity. (Schoenberg is said to have responded to a Schenker middleground diagram of Beethoven’s “Eroica” with the question: “Where are my favorite passages?” He then saw remnants of the foreground and answered his own query: “Ah, there they are, in those tiny notes.” (See Kerman, 1994: 168, and Rosen, 1997: 35)
Consider also an exchange between Ernest Guiraud, friend and amanuensis to Georges Bizet, and the young Claude Debussy. In this discussion, Guiraud advocated the collective interest by promoting tonal regulation, while Debussy — a “pantonalist” in Reti’s view — dissented on the basis of individual benefit. Seated at the piano, Debussy insisted that parallel chords were valid within a functioning musical composition. When he played a series of streamed “incomplete chords,” Guiraud called them “theoretically absurd” and said they had to resolve. Debussy answered that they were lovely as they stood, theory or no theory: “you have merely to listen,” he said, “pleasure is the key.” But Guiraud answered him: “I would agree with you in regard to an exceptional person who has discovered a discipline for himself and who has an instinct which he is able to impose. But how would you teach music to others?” He told Debussy, in short, that there was no way of universalizing such individual, non-theoretical pleasure.
We might take any one of several legal perspectives on this revealing many-or-one dispute over tonality’s domain. In advocating pleasure as the decisive quality, Debussy sounds like a utilitarian along the lines of Jeremy Bentham and, after him, Oliver Wendell Holmes: according to utilitarian principles, law is evaluated to the degree that it optimizes social benefit, measured according to the well-being of the population that it serves. As for Guiraud, he responded to Debussy with ethical arguments similar to those with which Ronald Dworkin answered Bentham. For Dworkin, utilitarian thinking can lead to dangerously arbitrary conclusions: taken to its logical extreme, it leads to compromise solutions that are treacherous for being, as he calls them, unprincipled and even “Solomonic.” (Dworkin, 1986: 1978-1984) If Guiraud had pursued such a Dworkinian argument further, he might well have concluded that Debussy’s approach to tonality-as-pleasure would ultimately produce a non-tonality, a kind of bastardized tonality-by-committee that was generalizable to nothing and which lacked integrity.
The Debussy-Guiraud debate could also be interpreted as a confrontation between the precepts of utility and fairness. A similar debate, well-worn in legal-theoretical discussion, centers on the question of collective equality vs. individual liberty. Here Guiraud would have weighed in as an equalist and averred that one listener’s isolated gratification threatens the right that all people have to share equally in listening pleasure. Debussy’s chord parallelism would present, in this view, a kind of civic danger in the same way that an individual who disregards civil law poses a threat to the society that does observe it. In offering the following description of individual obligation within a system of legal governance, the Oxford legal positivist H.L.A. Hart presented a view much like Guiraud’s: “When any number of persons conduct a joint enterprise according to rules, and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to these restrictions when required have a right to similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.” (Hart cited in Kramer 2005: 180)
This brief Guiraud-Debussy exchange shows a prime architect of 20th-century modernism explicitly denying tonality’s generalizability out of respect for the pleasurable specificity that he found in evading functional tonality. It is the composer who emphasizes individual compositional choice over the dictates of theory. To take a slightly different legal perspective, we might say Guiraud worked from a type of civil-law basis and Debussy from some kind of musical equivalent to common law: the former operating by statutes and the latter by legal precedent, the first applying the general to the specific and the second trying to relate specific case to specific case. Thus tonal theory and analysis work much like the legal system, generalization enabling assessment of specific examples and individual cases lending authority to relevant theoretical generalizations.
Roughly 40 years after Schenker, and 60 years after Debussy’s remarks, Milton Babbitt described the same kind of musical-aesthetic opposition between the generalizable and the particular as a contrast between “communality” and “contextuality.” (Babbitt, 1999 : 152-159) The conflict can be described similarly as a fight between the singular impetus as it faces up to the more general urge to preserve and defend meaning. Spoken of in these terms, the argument to take on distinct aspects of law in the second sense defined above: as a code of civic behavior, a way of maintaining the social fabric such that the individual is valued by her openness to generality.
3. Schoenberg’s illegality
Modern European societies have long accepted illegality in various forms, and have in fact built “a network of glorification and blame” around it, according to Foucault. For centuries, such transgressions have indeed been instrumental in defining social classes, giving rise to political movements, and charging economies. Foucault described various varieties of illegality, detailing forms of “open illegality,” “popular illegality,” and even “necessary illegality.” The varieties of everyday illegality can be measured by the many manners and degrees of strictness, neglect, disregard, toleration, exemption, and rescission by which civil laws are maintained or not maintained. (Foucault, 1995a: 73-103, and Foucault, 1995b: 257-292) We might boil the many kinds of illegality down to three basic types. (1) First, there are those deviations from the law, deviations from the reason of the state, that are paradoxically necessary for maintenance of the state. As Foucault presented them, these are crucial for the exercise and display of state or dominant power: the shape of power, as described in the History of Sexuality or the opening of Discipline and Punish, depends in part on the shape of deviance. The legal actually depends on the illegal, allowing or even committing illegalities in order to sustain and transform itself. Terrorism and illegal immigration, as depicted by the mass media, represent two examples. (2) Second, there is the widespread violation that the law is more or less helpless to penalize. File-sharing or habitually driving 10% over the speed limit count as instances of this type of illegality. (3) Third and last, we can speak of big transgressions that break or reconfigure the whole relationship between legal and illegal. If something about file-sharing leaves the fundamental aspects of intellectual property law in place, for example, bringing the mentally ill into the category of rights-bearing-citizens was — or would be — a revolutionary transgression.
Foucault could almost have had the atonalist Schoenberg in mind when he discussed one particularly common type of illegality: delinquency, a border franchise cultivated by “least-favoured strata” who stake out “a space of tolerance, gained by force or obstinacy… this space was for them so indispensable a condition of existence that they were often ready to rise up to defend it.” (Foucault, 1995a: 82) According to Foucault, delinquency is “a politically or economically less dangerous” form of illegality. Eternally interstitial, it hovers somewhere between our first and second categories of illegality — just as Schoenberg’s own tonal digressions prove “secretly useful, at once refractory and docile,” to borrow another of Foucault’s descriptions of delinquency. (Foucault 1995b: 278, 277) The Viennese composer vociferously and repeatedly declared himself delinquent in the Foucauldian sense, describing himself as a least-favored musician who managed to find a measure of tolerance - as opposed to love - “by force or obstinacy.” Take, for example, his melancholy essay on “how one becomes lonely” and his retort to someone’s question whether he was “this notorious Schoenberg,” his reply being: “Nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me.” If he was very much open to performing the Schoenberg role in various senses, he was not open to other forms of naming — and rejected, for example, the popular label “atonal.” (Schoenberg, 1975a: 30-52, 104) Somewhere in this dualism of performance and non-performance, in his differing reactions to the state’s referencing the delinquent as a pathologized subject, we can understand Schoenberg’s complexities as post-legalist.
Schoenberg’s atonality, and more generally his obstinacy, is more revealingly discussed in Foucauldian terms of delinquency than in terms of revolution. Revolution represents an eruption of widespread illegality in sense (3) above, a paradigm shift in defining the law. But Schoenberg’s forcefulness was not an instrument for bringing about a dodecaphonic musical utopia, a new or improved state of legality. Rather, he desired a state of perpetual illegality-within-legality. He gave a sense of what this might mean specifically in musical terms, in the Harmonielehre passage where he claims the generality of diatonic tonality would be meaningless without the specific particularities - the individual chords - that continually conflict with it. He makes the point within a Foucauldian description of power and governance:
Every chord, then, that is set beside the principal tone has at least as much tendency to lead away from it as to return to it. And if life, if a work of art is to emerge, then we must engage in this movement-generating conflict. The tonality must be placed in danger of losing its sovereignty; the appetites for independence and the tendencies toward mutiny must be given opportunity to activate themselves; one must grant them their victories, not begrudging them an occasional expansion of territory. For a ruler can only take pleasure in ruling live subjects; and live subjects will attack and plunder. (Schoenberg, 1983:1951)
As a specific example of the tonal performative in Schoenberg’s own discourse, let us consider his description of what he called “floating” or “fluctuating tonality” (schwebende Tonalität). The term, as Schoenberg used it, has a built-in and ultimately useful manner of vagueness - about which more in a moment. Brian Hyer takes it to refer to late Romantic music where “moments of orientation towards the tonic become allusive and fragmentary.” Hyer goes on to describe the opening of Tristan und Isolde in such terms, using Schoenberg’s notion to help explain how Wagner’s chromaticism exerted a profoundly particularizing force on later composers:
In the historical wake of Tristan, music underwent an atomization in which non-tonal harmonies cluster around isolated dominants and tonics. This tonal disintegration has often been understood as a dissolution from within, an organic process in which the forces of melodic attraction that gave rise to tonality led to its inevitable destruction. (Hyer, accessed 6 January, 2009)
On the other hand, Schoenberg described “suspended tonality” (aufgehoben Tonalität) most specifically in a section on modulatory function in the Harmonielehre, as a context where “from the outset the tonic does not appear unequivocally, it is not definitive; rather it admits the rivalry of other tonics alongside it. The tonality is kept, so to speak, suspended, and the victory can then go to one of the rivals, although not necessarily.” (Schoenberg, 1986: 153)
There seems little musical difference between notions of tonal “suspension” and tonal “floating.” The semantics and metaphorical aspect make the words ambiguous, and analysts quite often confuse them, in fact. Schoenberg might seem to have given theoretical context when he provided reasons for using the term aufgehoben. But he gave neither act of analytical naming — aufgehoben or schwebend — enough context or reasoning to show why it might be explanatorily useful, and indeed made no attempt even to define schwebende Tonalität. Couldn’t he just as easily have referred to “concise,” “otiose,” “insolent,” “transitional,” “compulsive,” “active,” or “centrifugal” types of tonality? And aren’t his terms more useful on account of their heuristic vagueness as for any specific application? More to the point, these ambiguities only make the “fluctuating tonality” and “suspended tonality” descriptors typical of tonal theory: to utter either phrase is really to define and establish the tonal style in question. Did these specific kinds of intervallic interconnectedness or disconnectedness exist (apart from another kind of a different description, say “extended tonality”) before Schoenberg devised the terms, or did they in fact come about at that very moment?
So Schoenberg doesn’t quite count as a revolutionizer of law. In Dahlhaus’s view, his “emancipation of the dissonance, which was not so much a qualitative leap logically resulting from what had gone before as an arbitrary act, was not at all the mere abolition of an old law and the introduction of a new one.” If he wasn’t a revolutionary, his tonal descriptors and other music-categorical statements make him a kind of prime mover, something like the law-declaring sovereign that John Austin put at the center of his mid-19th-century legal model. Schoenberg’s decree is like a king’s — he constitutes the law in his utterance, he does something, indeed makes something, with his utterance. Dahlhaus characterized him as a “decisionist” — someone with remarkable decision-making power, an ability “to interpret the diktat of the individual as that of history” without resorting to “a systematic web of argument.” Dahlhaus then turns to theology as the only explanatory context for Schoenberg’s decisionism:
The concept of an authority which is prophetic and moral, which judges and which simply decides and does not engage in argument, is so unusual in aesthetics, however, that at first one involuntarily feels that the religious pathos [in Schoenberg’s own writings]… has been assumed illegitimately…. The striking contrast between the compelling fact of Schoenberg’s authority and the weakness and inadequacy of compositional — technical or historical — philosophical explanations forces one to have recourse to theological categories, which do at least make some kind of orientation possible. (Dahlhaus, 1989: 87, 90)
As Austin understands it, the performative foregoes verbs of argument or existence. It demonstrates, in short, that doing is a different matter from saying - the performative brings something about rather than arguing that something. Simply to utter the performative is to do it: “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth,” “I do (take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife),” “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother.” As Austin argues, such performatives are neither true nor false: “I assert this as obvious and do not argue it. It needs argument no more than that ‘damn’ is not true or false.’” (Austin, 1962: 6)
4. tonality as performative
Tonality, in large part because of its status as a supposed communicative language, was long considered an agent of possibility - especially after atonality arrived, by way of contrast, as a negatively defined notion. With the way that Schoenberg describes tonality, however, whether he’s writing as decisionist or as law-promulgating sovereign, we find it difficult to theorize or generalize much beyond the individual moment: it seems more or less impossible to define a particular tonal type that could prove widely useful. Each naming of a tonal type, of whatever kind, cannot be accompanied by reasons showing it to be useful in explaining or classifying many works: the reasons for the type are not defensible, or not readily defensible, and we cannot argue about them based on all sorts of evidence. As is occasionally pointed out, Schenker offered more of a theory of genius than a theory of tonality: he defined a paradigm by which musical greatness can be measured, and the process of creative brilliance understood. (See Cook, 2007: 29-88) Schenker’s theory helps define the way each master composer proceeded, within each piece, from universal background to middleground to entirely unique foreground.
Musicologist Donald Mitchell, journeying deep into quasi-Foucauldian notions of jurism and prohibition, understood tonality as a kind of particularization rather than a defensible theory. He shrewdly described tonality as a set of "myriad concepts, admonitions and prohibitions... Composers have, throughout its history, challenged its authority, reinterpreted it, qualified, modified, defied, denied, reasserted it." As a result of such admonitions, prohibitions, and challenges and reinterpretations of authority, there have come to be almost as many types of tonality as there are composers, and the truth of those tonal types comes with their declaration. Following a similar line of thought, Bryan Simms writes of tonality, that “there is no term in twentieth-century musical theory that has received more varied interpretations...” (Simms, 1996: 57) William Thomson finds that definitions of tonality “often begin to fog up in stylistic peccadilloes, in metaphysics, or in tentative language suggesting that, although simple as a precept, the wherewithal of tonality is ineffably complex, its causes unfathomable.” To demonstrate his point, he lists more than 40 of the “qualifiers” that musicians have used over time to nuance ideas of tonality, including among others: polar, extended, migrant, roving, micro, anchoring, suspended, diatonic, chromatic, implicit, expanded, incipient, super, and secret. (Thomson, 1999: 6, 8) To this list we could add the terms devised by Wallace Berry in pursuit of what he calls a “conjectural set of classifications of levels of significance of tonal functions,” an inventory that would include - among others - “irrelevant tonality?”, “tonality of ambivalent conventions,” and “primitive (‘pedal’) tonality.” (Berry, 1976: 172)
Tonality is almost infinitely particularized, especially with 20th-century music. But we can go even further to say about tonal music, as follows from its near-infinite particularization, that it is largely constituted in the act of its description: to describe a sub-type of tonal composition, to name its particular system of contraventions against tonal “law,” is to comprise that sub-type. Tonality, in short, is a performative in both J.L. Austin’s and Judith Butler’s sense: as Butler might say, to perform a tonal type is analogous to performing a gender. (Austin, 1962: 1-11, and Butler, 1993: 223-242) This places the tonal endeavor equally with the historical, the heuristic, and the imaginary. With his long list of tonalist terms, Thomson points out the fact that tonality is, by virtue of the many necessary “illegalities” of its practice, heavily word-bound - it is in fact so caught up in words that verbal discourse goes beyond simply describing tonality to constituting it. The final question then arises, and here we come to the gist both of tonality’s performance and the performance of tonality, of precisely where that tonal type resides: in the particular relations and connections between notes of a score, in the name itself, or in the Schoenbergian act of naming?
The question also arises of explanatory and heuristic value in tonal classifications more generally. If Berry’s and Thomson’s terms were conflated, we would come up with a bewildering list showing just how non-theorizable and non-replicable tonal descriptions can be. Many of these can seem meaningful only for individual listeners after they have arrived at their own sense of what the description means. Perhaps the ultimate extension of such tonal categories are the coloristic terms that composer Olivier Messiaen developed for musical passages, “intellectual” rather than visual terms that showed how, for him, “the same sound complex always engenders the same color complex.” (Messiaen, 1994: 167) A passage of music might be “blue-orange” or, to turn to a moment he found more difficult to put into words, “transparent sulphur yellow with mauve reflections.” As Messiaen used them, these descriptions were detailed and indeed analytic — and could represent vivid and definitive tools of tonal analysis in the sense that they would encapsulate salient events and orderings of such events, except that they would prove difficult if not impossible to teach or transfer to other listeners. All this is not to argue that descriptions of tonality are arbitrary and meaningless, quite the opposite: they have perhaps too much meaning, which is why we have so many of them. But it is easy to forget just where such meanings reside and what importance they have. We could adapt Judith Butler’s analysis of the performative aspect to the obstetrician’s statement and, after making appropriate apologies, say of a specific musical composition: “it’s a tonality,” “it’s an atonality,” or more realistically, “it’s a certain kind of tonality, namely a fluctuating (primitive, micro, migrant, irrelevant, polar, purple with gold spots, etc.) tonality,” and add that the tonality of any one composition “never fully approximates the norm.” (Butler, 1993: 232)
Moving now from J.L. Austin to John Searle’s rather more detailed analysis of “illocutionary acts,” we arrive at the more specific question of whether performative statements on a particular composition’s tonality represent assertions or declarations. (Searle, 1979:1-29) Both are types of performatives. A declaration occurs when I name something (as in Butler’s obstetrician example), while an assertion happens whenever I commit to the truth of what I say. The namers of a ship hold the authority necessary to declare, as a brand-new fact, that “this is the Queen Mary” while I, as an impressed bystander, might later assert more redundantly to a companion that “this is the Queen Mary.” To judge from the title pages of printed music from the common practice period, composers and publishers are more like shipbuilders than ship-spotters, and their statements of tonality true declaratives rather than assertions. Beethoven’s title page for his Op.21 christens that work “Symphony No.1 in C Major,” and of course such unions of title and key were more or less universal - made on most every title page across the common-practice era.
Why was it thought desirable for the title page to announce the key of the piece, its specific tonal sub-type? The musicians don’t need to know the key because they have the key signatures in the score, of course, so the declaration would seem to be some sort of extramusical effort. To declare the key up-front in such a way was to introduce the work, to make a useful capsule statement about its character and identity. Musicians - and listeners more generally - were more sensitive to the array of key characteristics two centuries or even one century ago than they are now. For Beethoven to advertise a composition as being “in F Major” would give notice to potential listeners or players that the work might well follow a pastoral-style topos, have a movement imitating the 6/8 metrical topos of water, and have a specific degree of brightness. In short, such declarations of key helped to fill out a listener’s understanding of an instrumental work. In this sense, Brian Hyer points out the importance of the English word “key” as an indication of a piece’s character: “as a metaphorical ‘key’, the tonic ‘unlocks’ or clarifies the arrangement of pitch relations that underlies the music. A tonic thus unifies and coordinates the musical phenomena within its reach: in the key of C major, for example, there is an essential ‘C-ness’ to the music.” (Hyer, accessed 6 January, 2009)
But doesn’t all this argue against the possibility of individual tonal performatives? Might “an essential ‘C-ness’” somehow preclude a full measure of “essential Beethoven-ness”? Or perhaps basic statements of key are somehow negotiable within expressive parameters? Title pages do make key declarations, but at the same time individual listeners and performers — while generally falling in with composers’ or publishers’ tonal declaratives — can make their own tonal assertions and hold to them fairly strongly. Even in the standard repertory, a title-page declaration of key can be questionable. Why does the printed music declare Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to be in C Minor rather than C Major? Is the music’s point more important than where it ends? In the Fifth, minor wins out over major in terms of sheer numbers of measures, but is musical character something to be measured with a yardstick? And when Beethoven does “resolve” to major — after making an unexpected turn-back and a second resolution — there is no more purposeful victory in all music. And why is Mahler’s Fifth, to cite an even more extreme example, said to be in C-Sharp Minor when D major has already decisively arrived by the of the third movement? Clearly, a minor key indication has a narrative aspect for both Beethoven and Mahler: by disregarding the music’s passage from darkness to light, per aspera ad astra, it refuses to reveal ahead of time how the story ends. Describing either work as C Major might seem to negate their dark passage, their triumph-of-the-soul aspect.
Both assertions and declarations are shaped by influence, tradition, and social conditions. Tonal performative statements in particular remain largely generic, backward-looking, and limited overall — especially in a busy world where few people have the time, interest, or technical know-how to discuss finer nuances of key. While the average American has a vocabulary of perhaps five thousand words, title pages of most art music written between about 1650 and 1900 restrict their tonal assertions to the tiny and archaic descriptive vocabulary of the twelve major and twelve minor keys. Saying “this symphony is in D major” is therefore a different, much more formulaic declarative than saying “this ship is named Titanic.” Schoenberg’s appropriation of the non-musical words “hovering” and “suspended” to describe tonal types shows him trying to reach beyond this very small, 24-item tonal lexicon. Benjamin Boretz was doubtless referring to such extension of analytic performatives when he talked about how “musicians of Schoenberg’s generation and the next were forced to understand the nature of musical systems, beyond the attributes of particular systems, and thus to become able to perceive any given system not as a musical universal but as a musical choice.”
How true and sincere — in short, how personal — are tonal declarations? A good deal less so than naming a ship, it seems. What Culler says of the performative in principle, could also be said of the tonal declaration: that it “breaks the link between meaning and the intention of the speaker.” (Culler, 1997: 97) Outwardly expressed performative statements, as Austin described them, cannot be said to represent “reports, true or false, of the performance of inward and spiritual acts.” (Austin, 1979: 236) In short, the performative obscures expression with a layer of convention — an aspect that that, in the case of tonality, stands with the historical but outside any common notions of expressive sincerity. That convention entails restriction: tonal discourse can’t satisfactorily be described as a form of declaration, just as christening a ship from a list of only 24 names wouldn’t count as declaration. When Beethoven wrote his Symphony No.2 in D Major, to arbitrarily pick an example, he took on a certain set of pitch and interval conventions that go under the name of “D Major.” Following Austin, we might say that this D-major aspect doesn’t necessarily report on the composer’s “inward acts.” Of course Beethoven, to return to Donald Mitchell’s statement on tonality, “challenges, reinterprets, qualifies, modifies, defies, denies, and reasserts” the set of D-major tonal conventions over the course of the symphony itself. But that is a separate issue, one that doesn’t lie at the center of tonality as I am discussing it here, namely as a public discourse.
The tonality declarative, given its small and backward-looking set of descriptives, becomes a more complex, and indeed political, issue with twentieth-century music. Among the influential composers of that century, Stravinsky was perhaps the one who shadow-boxed most actively with the composer’s traditional, or indeed Romantic role as expresser of musical-aesthetic truths. And so, it is with performative politics in mind that we should read the curious prepositional phrase in the title of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1940). This is a quite rare kind of declaration and semantics from this composer, and one he must have intended as a provocation and a pose — as much a self-conscious, after-the-fact historical assertion as it was a compositional declaration. “The ‘in C’ is a little provocative,” writes Paul Griffiths of Stravinsky’s designation,
a little unreal, a little too emphatic. The real title would have to be something more like ‘Symphony in C with the first inversion as root chord and correspondingly with Phrygian leanings’ - although any such qualifications apply only to particular sections, so that even this title would have to flicker and change as the work proceeds. (Griffiths, 1992: 124-125)
Griffiths interrogates the description further, pointing out that Stravinsky did not create all tonality or key indications equal. This composer was free in his neoclassical phase to individualize tonal statements in many different ways: one passage could be “on” C with the next one grounding itself more committedly “in” C; chords could be substituted for the usual cadential dominant chords; the composer could give a general impression of speaking idiomatically within a tonality, but with a kind of foreign accent that both personalizes the tonality and sets himself apart from it. “As with the Serenade in A,” Griffiths continues in his discussion of Stravinsky’s symphony, “the preposition in the title is highly charged with meaning, but differently. It is not that the specified note is an axis and final instead of a tonic, but rather that it is a tonic in an unconventional sense, an ironic tonic.” The question then arises of just what kind of identity or set of identities C major represented for Stravinsky - as composer and, more inscrutably, as man - in this particular composition. “The Symphony may exist on split levels…,” Griffiths writes. “It is not a case of face and mask, as in Pulcinella, but of separate faces, or of separate masks which have become indistinguishable from faces: if C major is a pose or a prison, it is one that Stravinsky has chosen and made his own, partly by changing its shape.” (Griffiths, 1992: 123)
Without quite getting into them, Griffiths approaches important semantic questions over musical qualities. We could continue his line of thinking and ask: what kind of verb is involved in a declaration of tonality, whether in the composer’s mind or on the title page of the final composition? Does Stravinsky’s title “Symphony in C” really say “this symphony is in C major,” or does it say something more oblique about C major and this composition? Illocutionary acts become even more complex when we move from making statements about the everyday world to saying things about artworks, an illocutionary situation where any factuality becomes murky at best. There is a clear presumptiveness and habitual avoidance of verbs in the prefaces and titles to artworks, perhaps in implicit assumption that declarative statements are as much anathema to aesthetics as is pure representation: James McNeill Whistler’s painting carries the title The Artist’s Mother, not a declarative sentence like The Artist’s Mother Looks Like This.
5. situating the tonal performative
If performatives contain no truth that theory can prove or disprove, if they are as individual and particular as I have described them, then why do some survive and flourish within the discourse and others not? Why have “implicit,” “incipient,” and “super” failed to catch on as tonal declarations or assertions while Schoenberg’s “fluctuating” and “suspended” have lived on? Austin says that the performative commonly “masquerade[s] as a statement of fact,” and that such dissimulation is the very time that it “oddly enough… assumes its most explicit form. Grammarians have not, I believe, seen through this ‘disguise,’ and philosophers only at best incidentally.” (Austin, 1962: 4, n. 2) This suggests that the answers to my questions might lie less with the feasibility of the performatives themselves than with their creators. If the performative represents, as Culler puts it, “the acts of language that transform the world, bringing into being the things that they name,” then Schoenberg was a master of the performative. This is just how Dahlhaus understood Schoenberg when he called him a musical “decisionist”: as a creator whose pronouncements and actions worked inextricably together, the declarations as actions and the actions as declarations.
An important question remains. Why would tonality count as performative when meter or rhythmic organization, for instance, would not? Surely all aspects of the western art music tradition involve regulation and contravention, surely all have a hand in individual musical style? Two responses come to mind, that tonality is (1) the most easily, variously, and copiously though ambiguously verbalized aspect of Western art music and, not coincidentally, also (2) the aspect that has incited the most rule-making. Ideologues and composers of the Western art-music tradition haven’t seen fit to invoke laws with regard to rhythm, and William Thomson would have found it difficult to draw up a list of 40 qualifiers to describe individual compositional approaches to rhythm and rhythmic patterning. Yet those working in Western art-music traditions tend to have deeply hierarchical understandings of pitch and tend to group themselves compositionally, aesthetically, and historically according to issues of pitch. Pitch, in short, is the more socializable aspect: in just about any system of scales or tonalities, there arise various levels of potential that come to reflect Western beliefs in hierarchy, how tension should relate to relaxation, and how the mind should connect to the body. I believe Leonard Meyer was the first to differentiate between primary and secondary parameters in music - the first syntactical and arranged in class relationships, and the second statistical and non-hierarchical. Pitch is primary in this sense, and can encompass dominant and secondary-dominant relationships, while the secondary aspect of timbre is more a matter of relativity, statistics, and subjective “feel” than of rules and classlike relationships.
Tonal music is certainly not unitary when seen against the reality of individual musical practice, and the very term “tonal theory” is nonsensical insofar as there is no particular hypothesis that such a theory could involve. If tonality is more oriented to performativity than it is beholden to theory, statements on tonality are not the only performatives in musical discourse. There are others, including general style labels like “impressionist,” “mannerist,” “expressionist,” “neoromantic,” “modernist,” and so on - particularizations that involve naming and identity formation as much as they involve politics, subjective insinuation, identity, and wishful thinking. But those usually don’t involve the hidden agencies of power, the cultures of legality and transgression, and traditional substantiations, that the tonal references do. As stylistic and historical heuristics, they are significant in some ways. They don’t, however, have the reach of the tonalist discourse: they are attempts to dissect style laterally, as it were. But tonal performatives are implicitly hierarchical constructions of conceptual and historical depth, a legacy of the powerful law conceptions that dominated three centuries of tonal history.