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20th-century art music
Continuity and change in melody, structure and tonality
Alternatives to tonality
Classical C18-19 tonal music uses the central key and its tonic chord as a point
of reference from which to make excursions into other keys (e.g. the dominant).
The tonic chord, then, functions as a sort of centre of gravity around which the
other keys revolve and to which the music eventually returns (e.g. the
recapitulation in a sonata form movement)
During the C19 composers explored more and more distant keys and gradually
stretched the sense of an single central key to breaking point until, in the early
years of the C20 Schoenberg and a few other composers dispensed with any
attempt to have a tonal centre to their music – i.e. it became atonal
Since the idea of moving away from and back to a key formed the basis of all
longer pieces, Schoenberg found that he could not compose substantial
movements without some sense of key, which led him to evolve the idea of:-
12 note serialism (Webern)
In this system, devised by Schoenberg after WWI, the 12 chromatic notes are
pre-arranged into a fixed order which becomes a substitute for the ‘tonic’ – it
becomes the main point of reference and the building block of longer
Since the music is entirely made up of various versions of the 12-note row, in a
sense it never moves away from its main idea
Serial composers generally try very hard to avoid any possible reference to
conventional tonal patterns, things such as octaves, triads or ordinary arpeggios
which might give some suggestion of conventional tonal practice.
The 12-note row cannot generally be heard as a unit by the listener, although it
is quite easy to pick up on repeated patterns of notes (such as the 2 and 3-note
cells in the Webern). The row, therefore, does not act as a tonal centre for the
audience, it is more of a tool for the composer.
Timbre and tonality (Cage)
Cage did have some lessons from Schoenberg in his youth, though it’s not clear
that he learned very much form the experience, and certainly not serial
One of Cage’s main interests was in the quality of sounds – timbre – and the
invention of the Prepared Piano (originally because he wanted a range of
percussive sounds to accompany a dance performance, but could only afford a
pianist) is a good example of his experimental approach to composition.
The Sonatas & Interludes are very carefully structured according to numerical
patterns. It is not possible to say that any note or chord forms a tonal centre
though, because the notation does not represent the actual pitch (if any).
But: Certain timbres do function as reference points – the gong-like note in the LH
at the start of No.3, for example. These sounds and other groups of notes work
a little like tonal centres, although there is nothing like sense of moving away
from and returning to the centre found in conventional tonality.
Improvisation and tonality (Berio)
Berio started off as a serial composer in the years after WWII, but by the 1960s
he had moved towards a less severe approach which incorporated elements from
a wider range of styles, including tonal music.
 A large part of Sequenza III consists of structured improvisation, in which the
performer has considerable freedom with regard to pitch and rhythm. Even the
fully notated music is relative, rather than absolute (i.e. the singer must sing the
intervals written, but not necessarily at the precise pitch indicated).
 This means that there cannot be any reliable sense of a tonal centre, even
though there appear to be some notes which occur more often than others.
But: Some of the intervals, such as the minor third, do recur and have the effect of
binding the more melodic aspects of the music together. There is even a hint of
a tierce de Picardie at the very end, when a minor third ‘resolves’ into a major
third (Bb-G becomes Bb-Gb)
To what extent do you think tonal elements remain even in atonal music? Compare
and contrast the ways in which Webern, Cage and Berio organized pitch and timbre in
the pieces in the Anthology.
Is tonality just a matter of a central note or chord? If not, what else can it be?
You will need to start the essay with some sort of discussion of this point.
Reread the notes on the 3 composers – are their any similarities between their
approach to pitch, for example? What about the role of timbre in the Webern?
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC: does it feel as if there are certain notes, intervals or
timbres which are prominent an act as focal points for the music?