A Conversation for Sol-Fa - The Key to Temperament

"The Tonic is Dead"

Post 1

Steve K.

" ... a composer could increase the drama of his compositions by straying into those outlandish keys before returning to a comfortable conclusion."

Years ago, I audited a music theory course at a major university's music school. I recall (vaguely) a statement that Western harmonic progression could be summarized as: I- ... -V-I (where I is the tonic major and V is the dominant). The " ... " part is a bunch of other chords, some in other keys. But the point is you finish with a V-I cadence, arriving happily back at the tonic. Thus, we know when to applaud.

The professor said that contemporary composers (like himself) celebrated the development in the 19th century that "The tonic is dead. And Wagner killed it." I gather that Wagner felt no compunction to find his way back to the tonic, he just ended the work where the dramatic effect was greatest.

I also recall the joke about the pianist whose child got distracted and stopped playing on a V7 chord (e.g. G7 in the key of C). The pianist went to bed, but got up in the middle of the night and walked to the piano, playing that last C major chord. Then the pianist could sleep.


"The Tonic is Dead"

Post 2

Recumbentman

Yes, Schenkerian analysis is based on the theory that all musical compositions that are tonal and 'exhibit mastery' can be shown to be prolongations of the perfect cadence (I-V-I).

Wagner broke the tonal rules by allowing himself to modulate (change key) without feeling compelled to return to his first tonic. Before him Berlioz had made good use of modulation for dramatic effect - the modulation is the tune - but it was already the stuff of recitative right back to Monteverdi.

You know where to applaud in Wagner as he makes long unmistakeable final cadences; in some modern jazz and university music (what's the name for contemporary composed music?) it's hard to know how they decide they have finished one piece, and how it comes to have a different name from the next piece.

I heard a version of that story once: in World War 2 a plan was hatched by the British to deprive the music-loving Germans of sleep by dropping bombs that did no damage but sounded Dominant Seventh chords (GBDF). The Germans would stumble to their pianos to play a C chord - or perhaps an F#, if they heard them as augmented sixths (GBDE#).


"The Tonic is Dead"

Post 3

Steve K.

" ... in some modern jazz and university music (what's the name for contemporary composed music?) it's hard to know how they decide they have finished one piece, and how it comes to have a different name from the next piece."

I've heard the term "art music", but I would probably say "contemporary classical".

Also, on distinguishing pieces, I accidentally attended a concert by a fairly well known "jam band" who played on endlessly. The group is "Wide Spread Panic", didn't do much for me, but they seem to have a big following. I had wanted to hear the opening act, but due to a screwup on the times, I walked in just as that act was finishing.


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Post 4

Recumbentman

Footnote: Wagner in 'Tristan und Isolde' avoided perfect cadences right up to the end. We finally get that closure, once the lovers are both good and dead.


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"The Tonic is Dead"

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