Keynote Speaker

2015 Keynote Address: Thomas Christensen

“Borders of Tonality”

Most music students at one point or the other learned in their music history class about the crisis of harmonic tonality at the beginning of the 20th century. While it may have been an obvious exaggeration to say that tonality died at the hands of Schoenberg with the appearance of Opus 11 in 1911, never to be resurrected again, there seems little question that the common-practice language of the major and minor key system underwent some extraordinary perturbations at the fin-de-siècle. If 1911 did not mark the end of harmonic tonality as a viable resource for composers, it certainly marked a caesura of sorts. In my talk, I want to consider some problems historians face in trying to draw tonal bondaries in the history of Western music. My main focus, though, will not be upon this oft-told passion-play of tonality in the 20th century. Rather, I will look at some long-neglected debates among musicologists who worried about other borders of tonality, most specifically, when and how did harmonic tonality emerge in the west? This was a question that was heatedly debated already by scholars in the 19th century, but especially by a group of French music theorists associated with Francois-Joseph Fétis, the famed Belgian polymath and musicologist whose work was singularly devoted to questions of tonalité (a term he helped to popularize). For Fétis, the origin of tonalité moderne could be firmly dated to the beginning of the 17th century in the music of Monteverdi, and was to be distinguished by the tonalité ancienne of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The concept of tonality was used by Fétis, then, as a marker of difference. And there were no lack of musical practices that could be usefully differentiated by it. Besides tonalities distanced by age, there were also tonalities differentiated by place. As 19th-century European colonialists were learning evermore about the music from the Levant and Far East, awareness grew that musical tonalities were not the same over the face of the earth. But there were even differing tonalities in our own backyard: in the songs sung by provincial peasants or in the operas of adventurous composers from across the Rhine (think Wagner and his use of dissonant chromaticism and vertiginous modulations that seemed to challenge expectations of normative tonal behavior). All this suggests that tonality is a theoretical construct born of alterity; it is something that is perhaps most easily understood by what it is not. But as I will not fail to point out, tonality today has not lessened its grip on our own musical imagination, where issues of tonal content and the policing of stylistic borders continue to pre-occupy scholars—with often invidious consequences.

christensenThomas Christensen is the Avalon Foundation Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where he also serves as Associate Dean and Master of the Collegiate Humanities Division. Over a 30 year career, his research has focused upon the history of music theory, particularly in the early modern period. He has written a widely-cited monograph on the music theory of Rameau (Cambridge University Press, 1993) as well as numerous articles, some of which are anthologized in a recent book published by Ashgate Press, entitled “The Work of Music Theory.” Professor Christensen is the editor of the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2003). Presently, he is working on a book concerning Fétis and the problem of “tonalité” in French musical discourse during the 19th century to be published by the University of Chicago Press.