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Thread: Did Wagner's music lead to atonality?

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    Default Did Wagner's music lead to atonality?

    Did Wagner's music lead to atonality? There are those who think it did, and those who think it didn't. Which side are you on, and why?

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    Senior Member Caryatid's Avatar
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    The question is ambiguous. Tristan definitely inspired many composers and emboldened them to write in new ways. Does that mean it "led to" atonality? I guess.

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    http://www.cmpcp.ac.uk/wp-content/up...eke.pdf#page=8
    "... Yes, the missing tonality was in fact C minor; “atonality” is of course not justified, but it was certainly hinted…Adorno’s « hegemony of tonality» remains and Mozart’s acquisitions anticipate those of Wagner, transforming musical language « only indirectly, by means of the amplification of the tonal space and not through its abolition»."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Caryatid View Post
    The question is ambiguous. Tristan definitely inspired many composers and emboldened them to write in new ways. Does that mean it "led to" atonality? I guess.
    I see what you mean; when you place Tristan up next to Schoenberg's Erwartung, it's hard to see a transition; it's like two different worlds, and two different ways of thinking.

    Hammeredklavier's quote is interesting: "...transforming musical language only indirectly, by means of the amplification of the tonal space and not through its abolition."

    I wonder what the possible meanings of "amplification of tonal space" might be? The quote certainly maintains that Wagner was still a tonalist. But what was the nature of it?

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    This is a perennial topic, but attempts to discuss are subject to misunderstandings. The word "leads" is ambiguous and is likely to turn what looks like a reasonable discussion into a squabble over semantics, filled with unspoken assumptions. So, at the risk of stating the obvious - and believing that the obvious is almost never obvious enough - I'll say at the outset that no sort of music literally leads to any other. The most it does is present effects and procedures new to those hearing it, unfamiliar sounds which subsequent composers may use or which may inspire composers to have ideas of their own, ideas which might inspire still other composers to do likewise. We look at the overall progression of ideas and say that the first sort of music "led" to those which it influenced, but no inevitability attaches to this process: the precise direction in which music develops depends on the individual composers who develop it, and they are influenced by the cultural context in which they live and work as much as by their musical predecessors. Music can "lead" down different roads, not all of which are taken.

    It can be difficult to trace musical influences in any precise way, to assign them to specific composers and works. Wagner's musical style didn't arise fully formed in a vacuum, and much has been rightly said about the many influences that contributed to it. Maybe the most relevant to this discussion is Wagner's own remark, "since I've known Liszt, and since he plays for me, I have become quite a different harmonist than formerly." Chromatic harmony and uncertain tonal direction were not invented for Tristan und Isolde; composers had been using them for centuries - see Marenzio, Gesualdo, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, et al. - and there was always the theoretical option of using such harmony more extensively than it actually was used. Chromaticism was a resource inherent in the harmonic language of Western music which composers saw early on and could draw upon at will, but there is no mysterious "force" inherent in that language that compels composers to write music of increasing tonal ambiguity. And there is no force inherent in chromaticism that compels any composer, much less any musical culture, to renounce tonality as a basic principle of musical construction or a basic vehicle of expression and meaning. Liszt composed a few short, experimental pieces he called "without tonality"; they sound quite mild to ears familiar with the thoroughgoing atonality of Schoenberg and his successors. Wagner himself wrote a few passages in his most harmonically complex scores, Tristan and Parsifal, that induce tonal vertigo in the listener, but there is always specific dramatic justification for them; like every composer in the history of Western tonal music, Wagner regarded tonality as a language affording a great range of possibilities, of which tonal ambiguity was one, to be employed to whatever degree served his expressive aims. He had no interest in what he called "effects without causes," and he warned young composers against the indiscriminate use of devices for which he himself required the most compelling justification in the context of realizing his dramatic conceptions. The refusal of tonal progressions to resolve for which Tristan is famous is the musical expression of the unrequited and hopeless passion of its protagonists; similar effects in Parsifal portray the spiritual desperation and corruption of the knights of the Holy Grail. But Tristan and Parsifal both conclude with the clearest, strongest affirmation of tonality imaginable.

    The idea of expunging tonality as a principle of harmonic progression and formal organization is a radical one, and there is nothing in the music of Wagner, even when it's most chromatically dense, to suggest that he desired or contemplated it. He, like composers before him, showed that chromaticism is a tonal concept, that tonal ambiguity is just that - tonal - and that it derives power from its tonal moorings, even by the very act of rendering those merely implicit and temporarily uncertain. It's possible to use chromaticism in such a way as to obliterate any sense of tonal coherence and remove tonality as an organizing principle, but Wagner's work didn't provide any examples of what such music would sound like or "lead" to Schoenberg's decision to write it.

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    I think isorhythm said it very well:

    Quote Originally Posted by isorhythm
    I think the claim of the "Wagner leads to atonality" people is being misunderstood: no one's actually saying that tonality isn't central to Wagner's music (as counterpoint is central to Bach's, even in the prelude that's just a sequence of of arpeggiated chords). The claim is that Wagner pushed the role of unstated tonics to the point where other phenomena (the linear movement of highly chromatic lines and the sheer sound of the harmonies that result), start to become as important to listeners' actual experience of the music as the underlying tonal grammar, and that suggested new directions to composers that ultimately led to atonality.

    I was reminded of this recently when you quoted this book: "The manipulation of unstated tonics in motivic sequence then becomes a direct manipulation of an unconscious psychological process of projecting order. It is not an invention or deviation from the theoretical structure of tonal practice, but a realization of possibilities inherent within the system. As such it represents a profound stylistic advance, and the possibilities which it opened may remain largely unexplored by later composers."

    I think the reason it was largely unexplored by later composers is that if you push it much further, the unconscious psychological process breaks down and most listeners cease perceiving the sequences of unstated tonics. Anyway that's how it is for me when I try to listen to Berg's piano sonata or Schoenberg's chamber symphony, and it seems very natural that those composers ended up going the way they did.
    Myself, I have no problem with Berg's Op. 1 or either of Schoenberg's chamber symphonies; I can follow them all the way through, and none of it sounds "atonal" to me. I can hear a higher tonal logic in it; and I think Wagner's music and thinking have explanations. I think this is what is meant by "amplification of the tonal space." What does that imply, "tonal space?"

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    We look at the overall progression of ideas and say that the first sort of music "led" to those which it influenced, but no inevitability attaches to this process: the precise direction in which music develops depends on the individual composers who develop it, and they are influenced by the cultural context in which they live and work as much as by their musical predecessors. Music can "lead" down different roads, not all of which are taken.
    This view takes all the "nuts and bolts" out of music, and while it is an art, it is at the same time a form of mathematics, as the Greeks thought of it regarding the quadrivium.

    ...there is no mysterious "force" inherent in that language that compels composers to write music of increasing tonal ambiguity. And there is no force inherent in chromaticism that compels any composer, much less any musical culture, to renounce tonality as a basic principle of musical construction or a basic vehicle of expression and meaning.
    No, not a 'force,' but maybe a 'higher tonal logic.' This suggests that tonality is expandable 'past' chromaticism, not just hitting it like a brick wall, and would begin to use the chromatic collection to develop new tonal relations. There must be some 'higher tonal logic' at work here.

    The idea of expunging tonality as a principle of harmonic progression and formal organization is a radical one, and there is nothing in the music of Wagner, even when it's most chromatically dense, to suggest that he desired or contemplated it. He, like composers before him, showed that chromaticism is a tonal concept, that tonal ambiguity is just that - tonal - and that it derives power from its tonal moorings, even by the very act of rendering those merely implicit and temporarily uncertain.
    Chromaticism was certainly a tonal concept in the hands of Wagner. "Tonal moorings" originate with the ear; uncertainty is the ear/brain, trying to perceive tonal connections.

    It's possible to use chromaticism in such a way as to obliterate any sense of tonal coherence and remove tonality as an organizing principle, but Wagner's work didn't provide any examples of what such music would sound like or "lead" to Schoenberg's decision to write it.[/QUOTE]Probably true, at least to the ear. It sounds like there is a big chasm between Wagner and Schoenberg.
    Then it follows that tonality's organizing principles must be taken to a higher level, without obliterating them, once and for all separating tonal thought from atonal or serial thought. What is called for is a "new tonality"and a :new music theory" to follow after.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    This view takes all the "nuts and bolts" out of music, and while it is an art, it is at the same time a form of mathematics, as the Greeks thought of it regarding the quadrivium.
    I'm not following this. The acoustical aspects of music, pertaining to sound, can be expressed mathematically, like any physical science, and rhythm is expressed in ratios (2/4 et al.), but neither of those facts necessitates any particular course of stylistic change in the art.

    No, not a 'force,' but maybe a 'higher tonal logic.' This suggests that tonality is expandable 'past' chromaticism, not just hitting it like a brick wall, and would begin to use the chromatic collection to develop new tonal relations. There must be some 'higher tonal logic' at work here.
    What sort of "tonal expansion past chromaticism" are you thinking of? What do you mean by "tonal logic," much less of a "higher" sort? Different tonalities already exist in various world musics. Is there something they have in common that might inform a "higher" tonality featuring "new tonal relations"? Why would it be "higher"?

    Chromaticism was certainly a tonal concept in the hands of Wagner. "Tonal moorings" originate with the ear; uncertainty is the ear/brain, trying to perceive tonal connections.
    "It's possible to use chromaticism in such a way as to obliterate any sense of tonal coherence and remove tonality as an organizing principle, but Wagner's work didn't provide any examples of what such music would sound like or 'lead' to Schoenberg's decision to write it."(Woodduck)

    Probably true, at least to the ear. It sounds like there is a big chasm between Wagner and Schoenberg.
    I think atonality represents a distinct break, not just an end point in making tonal relations less and less perceptible or important. Schoenberg had to look for ways to prevent the mere suggestion of tonality from arising in the listener's mind, since that mind is fiercely determined to read tonal relations into pitches sounded either simultaneously or successively. Wagner plays with our tonal expectations in a multitude of ways, including the use of incomplete and deceptive cadences, rapid modulatory sequences, frequent use of chords that can resolve in different ways (such as diminished and half-diminished sevenths), and non-chord tones that suggest alien tonal centers (such as the disorienting g# in the first statement of the "Tristan chord," which makes harmonic "sense" only retroactively as the music continues). Schoenberg didn't want to play with tonal expectations but to block them so that harmony would be heard differently. You can take tonally derived chromaticism beyond Wagner, but the result is not Schoenberg's atonality but simple incoherence, with the listener's tonal sense constantly provoked but never satisfied, like an itch that's never scratched. That isn't what a true atonal idiom is supposed to do to us.

    Then it follows that tonality's organizing principles must be taken to a higher level, without obliterating them, once and for all separating tonal thought from atonal or serial thought. What is called for is a "new tonality"and a :new music theory" to follow after.
    Hard to see how that follows, since what it means is unclear.

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    In a sense, yes. Wagner is considered to be the one (or at least one of a few) who bridged late romantic music and the 12 tone system on the horizon.
    Tristan chord is the quintessence of Wagner's brilliant manipulation of the tonal system. Think of it in terms of voice-leading, not necessarily as a functional chord on its own.

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    Not at all. Why pick on Wagner? I would say Debussy is a more likely candidate, but that is only on hindsight. In the end it all rests on Schoenberg.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    I'm not following this. The acoustical aspects of music, pertaining to sound, can be expressed mathematically, like any physical science, and rhythm is expressed in ratios (2/4 et al.), but neither of those facts necessitates any particular course of stylistic change in the art.
    I'm not talking acoustics, but using the quadrivium idea to contrast what you are saying above: that the development of a new tonality past Wagner is up to "individual personalities", which (I've heard you say before) leads back to "Wagner the man" and how unsurpassably brilliant he was, and that tonality reached its highest point with him. I'm not satisfied with that "cult of personality" answer. Here's a past example of your "solution" to the question of tonality:

    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Your explanation for the theories of the "Wagner leads to atonality people" is very conciliatory! Actually, I don't think all those people have the same theory about how an expanded tonality "evolves" into atonality. There was Schoenberg's concept of "the emancipation of the dissonance,"which postulated that, over time, people learn to regard harmonies previously considered dissonant as consonant, and that logic therefore dictates that we go all the way and remove the tonal functions that provide the criteria for what's consonant and what isn't. Then there's the notion that because Romantic composers were making harmony more and more chromatic and using more chords that couldn't be "explained" by reference to theoretical systems then current, the obscuring of tonal centers which resulted would inevitably lead to a "breakdown of tonality" and its total abandonment as a constructive principle in music.

    Wagner would have spat out his coffee at such notions. No composer in history was more attentive to tonal relationships than he was, or exercised more far-reaching and iron-handed control over them. He was, however, well aware of what a Pandora's box of potential abuses his enriched tonal vocabulary would open up for aspiring composers tempted by what he described as "effects without causes." Young composers, he said, would come to him with compositions filled with novel and complicated harmonies, hoping to be praised for their expressiveness and creativity, and he would be quick to set them straight.

    Wagner's music does indeed force us to think of musical form - and this includes harmony - in ways that Bach's or Mozart's does not. But it no more implies, or suggests as desirable, the negation of the very principle of tonality than theirs does. I would dispute your suggestion that in his music "other phenomena (the linear movement of highly chromatic lines and the sheer sound of the harmonies that result), start to become as important to listeners' actual experience of the music as the underlying tonal grammar." Wagner's radical movement away from a "top-down" approach to harmonic structuring - in which the stations of tonal movement, the "functional" pillars of tonal harmony, are explicitly stated as the audible scaffolding of a basically abstract form - to a "bottom-up" approach - in which tonal structuring is guided by a sense of dramatic/expressive narrative inherent in the tonal language - is not a movement away from tonality but an extrapolation of a potential which had been present in it from the start and was in fact adumbrated many times in the work of earlier composers. What Wagner saw was the extent of that potential to create large-scale dramatic works in which the expressive language of tonal harmony could guide the creation of coherent musical statements without signaling its "mechanics" to the conscious mind of the listener.

    A real comprehension of what Wagner was doing in his music depends first and foremost on an intuitive sense of its organicity, its underlying logic, and that depends on our ability to abandon the Classical expectation that musical form, particularly form based on tonal structures, is created and perceived "from the top down." The musical conservatives of his day were opposed to his conception of musical form; I've known people, even musicians, who are not comfortable with it even today, and can't listen to a Wagner opera without feeling disoriented and irritated by the refusal of the music to congeal into neat structures. Wagner's mature works are an uncompromising expression of the Romantic conception of music as the language of the soul, a language which comes "from the bottom up," and Wagner uses drama as the scaffolding on which our conscious mind can fixate while the music goes to work on our unconscious.

    I've managed to get my hands on a copy of the book from which the excerpt you've quoted comes: "The manipulation of unstated tonics in motivic sequence then becomes a direct manipulation of an unconscious psychological process of projecting order. It is not an invention or deviation from the theoretical structure of tonal practice, but a realization of possibilities inherent within the system. As such it represents a profound stylistic advance, and the possibilities which it opened may remain largely unexplored by later composers." The book, "Musical Structures in Wagnerian Opera" by Marshall Tuttle, is a work of thorough scholarship and meticulous analysis, and it isn't an easy read (I'm skimming parts of it first time around). But it's definitely confirming and filling out my long-standing intuitions about Wagner's music and how it works. Among other things, it helps me understand why his scores are full of changes of key signature when it's often impossible to find more than a bar or two that actually seems to be in the specified key - and why, despite surface appearances, Wagner stated that one should never leave a key until one has said everything necessary within it.

    I understand Tuttle's suggestion that "the possibilities which [Wagner's techniques] opened may remain largely unexplored by later composers" to indicate, not that composers declined to push his techniques further lest they inevitably confound the listener's tonal expectations or be forced to leave tonality behind, but that they simply could not manipulate the surface vocabulary of his style with the intuitive control of the layers of tonal organization, mediated through motivic sequence and metamorphosis, which enabled him to generate a sense of narrative inevitability and expressive specificity on a grand scale. There's a great deal of post-Wagnerian music that sounds "Wagnerian" but, in any profound sense, isn't. Tuttle's observation also points out the fundamental fact that Wagner's music took the form it did under the impetus of the need for dramatic expression - "dramatic" in the specific sense. Tuttle's book shows in (sometimes ponderous) detail how dramatic ideas and musical structures are inseparable in the operas, to the extent that, more than with any other composer, understanding the latter is essential to understanding the former, and how the precise manipulation of tonal relationships provides a key to that understanding. Wagner was so convinced that music could be an articulate language, and so relentless and thorough in the use of hamony's tools to achieve that end, that he would eventually call his operas "deeds of music made visible."

    I would say that anyone who thinks that Wagner's music "leads to" atonality doesn't understand very much about it. Scholarly scuffles over how to name the Tristan chord are apt to be missing the forest for the trees.
    What sort of "tonal expansion past chromaticism" are you thinking of? What do you mean by "tonal logic," much less of a "higher" sort? Different tonalities already exist in various world musics. Is there something they have in common that might inform a "higher" tonality featuring "new tonal relations"? Why would it be "higher"?
    I invite your speculation.

    "It's possible to use chromaticism in such a way as to obliterate any sense of tonal coherence and remove tonality as an organizing principle, but Wagner's work didn't provide any examples of what such music would sound like or 'lead' to Schoenberg's decision to write it."(Woodduck)

    I think atonality represents a distinct break, not just an end point in making tonal relations less and less perceptible or important. Schoenberg had to look for ways to prevent the mere suggestion of tonality from arising in the listener's mind, since that mind is fiercely determined to read tonal relations into pitches sounded either simultaneously or successively. Wagner plays with our tonal expectations in a multitude of ways, including the use of incomplete and deceptive cadences, rapid modulatory sequences, frequent use of chords that can resolve in different ways (such as diminished and half-diminished sevenths), and non-chord tones that suggest alien tonal centers (such as the disorienting g# in the first statement of the "Tristan chord," which makes harmonic "sense" only retroactively as the music continues). Schoenberg didn't want to play with tonal expectations but to block them so that harmony would be heard differently.
    You can take tonally derived chromaticism beyond Wagner, but the result is not Schoenberg's atonality but simple incoherence, with the listener's tonal sense constantly provoked but never satisfied, like an itch that's never scratched. That isn't what a true atonal idiom is supposed to do to us.
    I think you are placing too much bias on Wagner, as if all tonal music ended there, and I don't believe that's true. "...tonality's organizing principles must be taken to a higher level, without obliterating them, once and for all separating tonal thought from atonal or serial thought. What is called for is a "new tonality"and a "new music theory" to follow after."

    Hard to see how that follows, since what it means is unclear.
    It sounds like you've already made your mind up that everything peaked with Wagner, so there's not much use in discussing any other possibilities without you 'shredding' them.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Apr-06-2020 at 01:12.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I'm not talking acoustics, but using the quadrivium idea to contrast what you are saying above: that the development of a new tonality past Wagner is up to "individual personalities", which (I've heard you say before) leads back to "Wagner the man" and how unsurpassably brilliant he was, and that tonality reached its highest point with him. I'm not satisfied with that "cult of personality" answer.
    It would be better if you'd confine your responses to ideas actually expressed in my post, since you normally misrepresent me when you don't. I've said nothing about "Wagner the man" or suggested any need for a "cult of personality," so your imagination is clearly working overtime. I think my earlier thoughts, which you've quoted at length, state my views on his musical style clearly and eloquently, and I hope that others will derive something from them.

    I think you are placing too much bias on Wagner, as if all tonal music ended there, and I don't believe that's true. It sounds like you've already made your mind up that everything peaked with Wagner, so there's not much use in discussing any other possibilities without you 'shredding' them.
    Nothing I've said suggests that "tonal music ended," or that "everything" peaked, with Wagner. That doesn't represent my views. There was plenty of interesting tonal music after Wagner, in many different styles, using harmonic combinations he did not.

    You haven't said anything concrete about "other possibilities," so there's nothing to "shred." The following hardly does it:

    "...tonality's organizing principles must be taken to a higher level, without obliterating them, once and for all separating tonal thought from atonal or serial thought. What is called for is a "new tonality"and a "new music theory" to follow after."
    I can only repeat my assertion that the meaning of that is unclear.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Apr-06-2020 at 01:44.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    It would be better if you'd confine your responses to ideas actually expressed in my post, since you normally misrepresent me when you don't. I've said nothing about "Wagner the man" or suggested any need for a "cult of personality," so your imagination is clearly working overtime. I think my earlier thoughts, which you've quoted at length, state my views on his musical style clearly and eloquently, and I hope that others will derive something from them.
    This is the way I have interpreted what you say. Now you're accusing me. Apparently, you don't want to discuss anything. You're impossible.



    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Nothing I've said suggests that "tonal music ended," or that "everything" peaked, with Wagner. That doesn't represent my views. There was plenty of interesting tonal music after Wagner, in many different styles, using harmonic combinations he did not.
    This is the way I have interpreted what you say.

    You haven't said anything concrete about "other possibilities," so there's nothing to "shred." The following hardly does it:

    I can only repeat my assertion that the meaning of that is unclear.
    You are so negative; it's a bad experience interacting with you.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Apr-07-2020 at 16:21.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    This is the way I have interpreted what you say. Now you're accusing me. Apparently, you don't want to discuss anything. You're impossible.





    This is the way I have interpreted what you say.



    You are so negative; it's a bad experience interacting with you.
    If expecting people to refrain from misstating my views, and asking them to explain what they're talking about in clear language, is negativity, then long live negativity.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    If expecting people to refrain from misstating my views, and asking them to explain what they're talking about in clear language, is negativity, then long live negativity.
    It's not my problem if you feel 'misrepresented,' which I don't think you really do. You're just trying to invalidate me as a person.

    It's hard to back-up anything on this subject with real substance. If we have an idea what Wagner was doing from a theoretical standpoint, it can be justified with "It was because he was a dramatist" or "he was the supreme tonalist; he rejected younger composers."

    If Wagner was an advanced tonal thinker, which I think he was, what was he thinking from a theoretical standpoint? Explain it. It's far easier to justify it all with "Wagner the man," because of "father-figure complexes" in many males, arising from the suppression of the libido into a sublimated 'hero' complex.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Apr-07-2020 at 16:55.

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