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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form
Richard Taruskin
What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-3 Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata da chiesa, Op. 3, no. 11, second movement (Presto)

And yet this description has so far omitted the most potent factor in the movement’s extraordinary momentum. That factor is the harmony—the “tonal” harmony, as we now call it. The standardizing of harmonic functions, something going on in all music at the time but particularly foregrounded and made an “issue” in the Italian string music of which Corelli was the foremost exponent, was his most transforming and enduring legacy.

The opening exchange between the violins describes a preliminary alternation of tonic (I) and dominant (V), that establishes on the smallest level the motion “out” and “back” that will give coherence to the whole. It necessitates a small adjustment in the intervallic structure of the “head motive.” When describing the motion “out” from tonic to dominant, the motive consists of a rising fourth and a falling semitone; but when describing the motion “back” from dominant to tonic, the second interval is altered to a falling third. This kind of adjustment between the motive and its imitation is now called “tonal answer,” because it arises in response to the exigencies of the tonal functions that are driving the music so forcefully.

When the movement “back” from dominant to tonic has been completed, the bass continues to move in the same harmonic direction, passing “Go” (as one says when playing Monopoly) and moving by half-measures through the tonic to the fourth degree or subdominant (C), the seventh degree (F), and the third or mediant (B♭), for a total of four moves along an exhaustive cycle that we now call the “circle of fifths.” It was precisely in Corelli’s time, the late seventeenth century, that the circle of fifths was being “theorized” as the main propeller of harmonic motion, and it was Corelli more than any other one composer who put that new idea into telling practice.

As a sort of harmonic curiosity, the circle of fifths and its modulatory properties had been recognized as early as the mid-sixteenth century. There is, for example, a curious motet by a German humanist musician named Matthias Greiter called Passibus ambiguis (“By sneaky steps”). Published in 1553, its text concerns the vagaries of Fortune, and its cantus firmus consists entirely of the six-note incipit of a famous old song called Fortuna desperata (“Desperate Fortune”), somewhat shakily attributed to the fifteenth-century Burgundian court composer Antoine Busnoys. The little snatch, consisting of the syllables fafasollasolfa, is repeated over and over, and is transposed up a perfect fourth (or down a perfect fifth) seven times, so that its tonic pitch proceeds in a perpetual “flatward” progression from F to F♭, thus: F–B♭–E♭–A♭–D♭–G♭–C♭–F♭. (Meanwhile, the other parts have to scramble for their notes by applying the rules of musica ficta, chromatic alteration at sight, as practiced since the fourteenth century, in unheard-of profusion.) It is an amusing allegory for a serious idea. The circle of fifths symbolizes the fabled “wheel of Fortune,” and by ending on a note that looks like F but sounds like E (and even looks like E on a keyboard or a fretted fingerboard), the composer has transformed the “happiest” final (Lydian fa) into the “saddest” one (Phrygian mi), illustrating the precariousness of luck and the transience of earthly joys (Fig. 5-2).

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

fig. 5-2 Tenor (based on Fortuna desperata) from Matthias Greiter’s Passibus ambiguis, in Gregorius Faber, Musices practicae erotematum libri II (Basel, 1553).

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

fig. 5-3 Early diagram of the circle of fifths, from Nikolai Diletsky, Ideya grammatiki musikiyskoy (Moscow, 1679).

What was merely a curiosity to sixteenth-century musicians was bread and butter to their seventeenth-century successors. The circle of fifths was represented for the first time in a theoretical treatise composed in Polish by a Ukrainian cleric and singing teacher named Nikolai Diletsky (or Dilecki), who lived at the time in the city of Vilnius (see Fig. 5-3). (It was first printed in 1679, in Moscow of all places, in Russian translation.)

This earliest complete circle is a circle like Greiter’s extended to its limit. That is, it is made up of twelve perfect fifths and shows all possible transpositions of a major scale (that is, all the possible keys) but does not define the harmonic relations implicit in a single key. On the contrary, a circle like Greiter’s or Diletsky’s leads ineluctably away from any stable point of tonal reference.

The decisive practical move was to limit the circle of fifths to the diatonic degrees of a single scale by allowing one of the fifths to be a diminished rather than a perfect fifth. When adjusted in this way the circle is all at once transformed from a modulatory device—that is, a device for leading from one key to others progressively more distant—into a closed system of harmonic functions that interrelate the degrees of a single scale. When thus confined, the circle of fifths became an ideal way of circumscribing the key defined by that scale by treating every one of its degrees as what we now call a harmonic root.

The progression by fifths thus became the definer of “tonality” as we now know it: a model for relating all the degrees of a scale not only melodically but also harmonically to the tonic, and measuring the harmonic “distance” both among the degrees within a single scale and between scales (Ex. 5-4). When the diatonic circle of fifths became the basis of harmonic practice, the major–minor tonal system (or “key system”) can be said to have achieved its full elaboration.

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-4 Diatonic circles of fifths on C major and G minor

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-5 Alessandro Scarlatti, L’Aldimiro (1683), “S’empia man” (Act III, scene 12)

The fully elaborated system’s birthplace was the Italian music of the 1680s. The earliest example known to the author of the use of a full diatonic circle of fifths to circumscribe and thus establish a diatonic tonality occurs in a tiny aria from the third act of L’Aldimiro, Alessandro Scarlatti’s third opera, first performed in the theater of the Royal Palace at Naples in November 1683. It functions here as a ground bass (the more elaborate da capo structure not yet having become the standard; see Ex. 5-5). Like all ground basses, this one surely had a “preliterate” prehistory in improvisation. And like all ground basses it is a static element, a bead for stringing, rather than a dynamic shaper of form.

The Presto from Corelli’s op. 3, no. 11 (Ex. 5-3), published in Rome in 1689 but probably composed some years earlier, no longer shows the circle of fifths off as a “device” but simply harnesses it, a fully integrated element of technique, to drive a dynamically unfolding form-generating process. That much is typical of the north-Italian instrumental ensemble music of the time, which for that reason stands as one of the great watershed repertories in the history of European music. It is certainly no accident, moreover, that “tonality” as a fully elaborated system emerged first in the context of instrumental music. Instrumental music stood in far greater need of a potent tonal unifier like the circle of fifths than did vocal music, which can as easily take its shape from its text as from any internal process.

So for our purposes we can let Corelli stand as protagonist of this all-important development—one that put instrumental music on a path of ascendency that would ultimately challenge the preeminent status of vocal genres. For in no other composer of the time is the circle of fifths quite so conspicuously and copiously deployed. In the Presto of op. 3, no. 11, Corelli resorts to it over and over again. The instance already noted at the outset is the first segment of the circle of fifths to appear; but it is by no means the most extensive one, for it only takes the circle half way, to III (what we now call the “relative major”). For a complete circle, fully circumscribing the key of the piece (and then some!), see mm. 11–15.

Not only does Corelli use the circle here in its complete form, he also manages to enhance its propulsive force in two distinct ways: first, by doubling the rate of chord change (what is now often called the “harmonic rhythm”) in the second half of the progression; and second, by adding sevenths to most of the constituent chords, especially in the latter (faster, more emphatic) portion. These sevenths, being dissonances, create the need for resolution, thus turning each progression of the circle into a simultaneous reliever and restimulator of harmonic tension. In this intensified form, the circle of fifths becomes more than just a conveyor belt, so to speak; it becomes, at least potentially, a channeler of harmonic tension and a regulator of harmonic pressure—phenomena that can be easily associated or analogized with emotional tensions and pressures, hence harnessed for expressive purposes (see Ex. 5-6).

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-6a Circle of fifths in Corelli, Op. 3, no.11, II (Presto)

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-6b Circle of fifths in G minor with interlocking sevenths

Note, finally that when this inexorable cycle gets underway, Corelli (like Scarlatti before him) reinforces it with melodic sequences—another way of demonstrating the inexorability of the progression.

Another kind of standard sequence, not simply melodic but contrapuntal, is the suspension chain. It, too, is easily adapted to the circle of fifths, as Corelli demonstrates in mm. 34–36, the passage that sets up the final cadence: the suspensions between the two violins are accompanied by another supercomplete progression, VI–ii–v–i–iv–VII–III–VI–ii–V-i (Ex. 5-7a). Compare also the suspensions over the “walking bass” at the beginning of the Preludio from the sonata da camera, op. 4, no. 2 (Ex. 5-7b).

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-7a Arcangelo Corelli, Op. 3, no. 11, II (Presto), mm. 34–36, analyzed to show basse fondamentale

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-7b Arcangelo Corelli, Op. 4, no. 2, I, mm. 1–5, analyzed to show basse fondamentale

These two techniques in tandem—melodic sequences or suspensions underpinned with dynamic circle-of-fifths harmonies—would become the standard by which all tonal progressions would henceforth be measured. They became, in effect, the basis of what is often called the “Era of Common Practice”; and the “sequence-and-cadence” model (shown at its most primitive in Scarlatti’s ground bass) became the chief generator of form in “tonal” or “common-practice” music.

For a final illustration from Corelli’s own work we can take a look at one of his most famous compositions, the “Pastorale ad libitum” from the Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 8, a concerto da chiesa “made for Christmas Night” (fatto per la notte di natale) and usually called the “Christmas Concerto” in English. It was probably composed in the 1680s but first published in 1714.

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-8a Arcangelo Corelli, Pastorale ad libitum from the “Christmas Concerto”, Op. 6, no. 8

What, Exactly, is “Tonality”?

ex. 5-8b Arcangelo Corelli, Pastorale ad libitum, mm. 8–11, analyzed to show basse fondamentale

This Pastorale movement is an appendage to the concluding fast movement in the concerto, a dancelike number in binary form. (While untitled, as was the rule in a concerto da chiesa, the movement is clearly a gavotte, and would surely have been so labeled in a concerto da camera.) The Pastorale is marked “ad libitum” (optional) so that the concerto might be performed without it on other occasions, for it is the Pastorale alone that has obligatory or “programmatic” associations with the holiday theme. The Largo tempo and the meter will bring the Scarlattian “siciliana” to mind with all its rustic associations, and the plangent bagpipe drones with which the backup band (concerto grosso) accompanies the soloists (concertino) in the opening ritornello (Ex. 5-8a), and on its later reappearances, leave no doubt that we are standing among the shepherds, and that the music is painting a manger scene.

That ritornello consists of nothing but three sequential repetitions of a three-bar “rocking” motif (Mary cradling the infant Jesus?) and a two-bar cadence. The little episode for the concertino in mm. 8–11 contains the first circle of fifths. As happens so often, the harmonic circle is unfolded through a suspension chain; in this case, somewhat unusually, the syncopated voice that creates the suspensions is the bass. Its dissonances and resolutions identify an essential root progression by fifths that is broken up and somewhat disguised in the voices above (Ex. 5-8b). The first theorist to employ the technique of “root extractions” used in this analysis and the preceding one was Jean-Phillippe Rameau, in his Traité de l’Harmonie or “Treatise on Harmony” of 1722; as usual, a theorist of the next generation has found a way of systematically rationalizing and representing a manner of writing—or rather of thinking musically—that had already become well established in practice.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 14 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 14 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05002.xml