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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

The essential difference between these two concepts of pitch organization, the radic-alness of the change from the one form of cadential articulation to the other and the implications of that change, remain matters of debate among historians. They can be (and have been) tendentiously exaggerated, and also tendentiously minimized. Clearly, though, whatever the eventual implications of the V-I bass, its fifteenth-century introduction (like many other retrospectively momentous turning points in music history) was no conscious revolution. To call “tonality” a radical break with past thinking, an inspired invention, or (most telling of all) an unanticipated, world-transforming discovery is clearly to borrow without critical reflection from that all-embracing concept of the “Renaissance” that, unless vigilantly examined, can all too easily prejudice the study of fifteenth-century music.

Thus to look for a musical “Age of Discovery” to match the near-contemporary exploits of Columbus and Magellan is attractive but facile, just as it is facile to compare the “discovery” of “tonal” harmony based on the circle of fifths with the “discovery” of perspective by the painters of “Renaissance” Italy. In neither case was something discovered. Both discoveries were inventions. The invention of techniques for rendering a three-dimensional perspective by locating the viewer’s eye in space is easily explained, moreover, as an attempt to imitate nature—that is, our natural way of seeing. That way of seeing existed before there was a technique for representing it on canvas. But what is the comparable preexisting natural model for tonal harmony? Natural acoustical resonance, some have argued, with reasonable but limited justification.

Yet it would be equally tendentious to minimize the difference between a harmonic syntax based on the concept of occursus—“closing in” on a unison or octave—and one based on fifth relations. On the basis of virtually all the music that we hear in daily life, we have learned to assign implied hierarchical functions to chords as well as to scale degrees. Composers have long since learned how to establish these harmonic (or, as we call them, “tonal”) hierarchies, as well as dissolve them, and to move from one such ordering (through a process called modulation) to another.

These habits of the musical ear, and the techniques to which they gave rise, were a long time taking shape. A fully elaborated tonal system was not in place until the other end of the two-century time frame initiated by the change in cadential norms. By the late seventeenth century, the V-I close was only the most decisive member of a pervading system of fifth relations (the “circle of fifths”) that governed harmonic relations at many levels. Equally important (and equally different from earlier practice), the tonal system was no longer dependent for its effects on strict linear voice leading.

For us, who live more than five hundred years later, what was for the fifteenth century the distant future has become the distant past. We are therefore much more fully aware than anyone could have been at the time of the range of implication the new cadential structure carried within it. And so we are justified in seeking the origins of modern harmonic practice at a period when that practice could not yet be predicted. The fact that some of the questions we now ask about fifteenth-century harmony would not have been meaningful to fifteenth-century musicians does not lessen their interest or their meaningfulness to us.

It should be clear, then, that to deny the perceptual reality of functional harmonic practice simply because it originated “unintentionally,” as an incidental contrapuntal formula, is to commit the “genetic fallacy,” as it is called, a rather hackneyed logical error that equates origins with essence. (According to the genetic fallacy no contrapuntal combination can ever become a harmonic norm, no drinking song can ever become a national anthem, no Russian composer can ever write an Italian opera, no African can ever become an American.) Committed innocently, an error is something from which one can learn; committed cynically, an error is something with which one can deceive.

This particular genetic fallacy—to reduce the “tonal system” to the chance product (or worse, the tenacious misinterpretation) of a contrapuntal accident—was a common academic strategy for undermining belief in the reality of the tonal system at a time around the middle of the twentieth century when the rights of “atonal” music—a music then practiced exclusively in the academy—were being defended against those who called it “unnatural.” Instead of arguing that a basis in nature is only one of the criteria by which musical styles acquire perceptual viability (especially in academic or otherwise “high” or elite environments), an attempt was made to deny all natural basis to habits of musical “hearing.” In this controversy, we can see especially clearly how fundamentally the writing of history can be influenced by current esthetic or political concerns.

So we will avoid taking sides in a misconceived argument and limit ourselves to the perceptual facts insofar as they are available, and with recognition that such facts are never entirely available. “Oral” practices that we know only imperfectly if at all—for example, the use of chord-strumming instruments in unwritten musical repertories and their effect in reconditioning musical “hearing” during the two centuries in question—unquestionably had an important bearing, but one that can never be fully documented, on the “transition” from modal discant counterpoint (“their” way of composing) to functional harmony (“our” way of hearing).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012006.xml