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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

These are the conditions under which music becomes, in a word that has become standard terminology over Schoenberg’s objections, “atonal.” Schoenberg objected to the word because its connotations were purely negative: merely to say what something is not is a far cry from saying what it is. He preferred to call his music “pantonal,” suggesting a single transcendent, all-encompassing tonality rather than the mere avoidance of custom, but the term failed to catch on. Other candidates that have been proposed over the years—”contextual,” “motivic”—have fared even less well. Like “Gregorian chant” and “English horn,” “atonal music” is one of those historically sanctioned misnomers we have to live with. Resigning ourselves to it, however, should not dull our perception of its inadequacy or its disadvantages.

The greatest disadvantage has been the creation of a spurious and very misleading antonym—”tonal music”—that has arisen in the wake of the polemics surrounding “atonality.” The term never existed (because it never had any reason to exist) during the “common practice” period it ostensibly describes. Its crude lumping effect has all too often discouraged precise distinctions and clear conceptualization.

For one thing, the polemical question “tonal vs. atonal” often intrudes needlessly into discussions of consonance vs. dissonance, or of chromatic vs. diatonic, and confuses the issues. The definition of tonality rests neither on levels of consonance nor on degrees of chromaticism, but on the functional differentiation of scale degrees. If high chromaticism is taken as a sign of atonality, then the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde might be regarded as an example (or, perhaps, a harbinger) of atonality, when in fact few compositions depend more clearly or crucially on functional distinction between the dominant (in this case endlessly prolonged) and the tonic (in this case excruciatingly withheld).

Similarly, if high dissonance is taken as a sign of atonality, then the “horror fanfares” in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony might be regarded as an example or a harbinger of atonality, when in fact their whole effect depends on our recognizing an actual collision between the tonic and the diminished seventh on its leading tone (a common substitute for the dominant that preserves and even intensifies its functional tendency). In fact, both Wagner’s composition and Beethoven’s (indeed, Wagner and Beethoven themselves) have been advanced as harbingers of atonality by those intent on giving Schoenberg’s practices a historical justification. Such a tendentious exploitation of the term is already evidence of its deleterious potential: calling Beethoven or Wagner “atonal” hardly enhances our understanding of them, or even of Schoenberg.

But now consider a composition based entirely on the whole-tone scale (as Ex. 2-8, Debussy’s “Voiles”, comes close to being). As long as it remains within the confines of the scale it will contain no chromaticism, and its dissonance can only be relatively mild, since minor seconds, major sevenths, and even perfect fourths are excluded from its vocabulary. And yet (as we learned in Chapter 2) the whole-tone scale, which contains neither perfect intervals nor semitones, and in which all the steps are equal, can assign no functional differentiation to its degrees and support no traditionally functional cadences. Thus traditional tonal relations can be effectively challenged without any chromaticism or dissonance, while a high level of chromaticism and dissonance can actually serve to enhance our awareness of tonal functions.

Everything depends on how chromaticism, or dissonance, or any other musical characteristic, is handled. And that signals another danger. Terms like “tonal” and “atonal” are often mistakenly thought to refer to inherent qualities of music rather than compositional practices, and (as in the case of consonance and dissonance) to place in categorical opposition what is better viewed on a continuum. Can we actually draw a categorical line between “tonal” and “atonal” and pinpoint its crossing with precision? Do we know what we mean when we say that one piece (or even one composer) is more or less “tonal” than another? Are we stating a fact or making an interpretation?

As our present discussion of Schoenberg’s music continues, and in chapters to come, it should become evident that in music, as in so many other arenas, a priori insistence on black-and-white distinctions is intellectually counterproductive. It hinders observation, desensitizes the mind to nuances and ambiguities, and reduces analysis to crude pigeonholing, lowering rather than enhancing its cognitive benefit. Experience teaches us that life is lived (and art is created) in infinite shades of gray.

So to understand what Schoenberg meant when he spoke of his breakthrough into a “pantonal” idiom, one where tonality is permanently fluctuating (or permanently suspended), we need to evaluate the relevant musical procedures and their results, but we also need to inquire further as to the reasons why Schoenberg—both as a musician and, more generally, as an artist—felt the need for just these procedures. Only in this way will we end up with a precise and positive concept and avoid the intellectual black hole into which empty negative categories like “atonality” can beckon us.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006007.xml