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tonality, last code
socially shared;
subsequent non-tonal codes,
socially not shared.

(Notes for a lecture held at the Polytechnic Milano-Bovisa on April19.2002, during a master in e-design. The present text – presented to unaware but curious students – pursues a simple popular strategy. Less obvious considerations were left to the dialogue with the students, and cannot be read here).

A. Schoenberg: specular scheme

      Within the classical western music and starting from the beginning of the twentieth century, for the first time composers and users of their music spread apart. The causes of this diverging between the contractors of a relation, at first strong and successful were multi-faceted. At this time we will not deal with the social or sociological component of that spreading apart. The attention will be paid to the crisis of tonality only – last code socially participated – and to the consequent adoption of non-tonal codes (or extratonal), deprived of social sharing. Which, just because not socially widespread, produced an unavoidable separation of the users’ community from that of the composers. Unable to recognize themselves in the non-tonal codes the listeners receded to the known seasons of the tonal tradition and preferred to ‘recognize’ rather then to ‘cognize’. The rejection of the works originated by unknown codes was also determined by the presence in those works of compositional techniques tending towards the denial of listening. The aptitude of many composers for adopting linguistic esoteric solutions was encouraged by the negligence of the listeners for all that which sounded new: regardless of the quality of the novelty. Finally attention must be attracted to a linguistic condition not to be set aside: there can be no significant aesthetic result failing grammar. Composers who abandoned the tonal grammar had to give themselves a substitute one. All those works which postulated an unknown grammar were made unattainable by the inevitable social ignorance of the newly adopted grammars and their chaotic proliferation. The most sublime poetry in an unknown language is unknowable itself.

      Between composers committed to not shared extra-tonal codes and the public occurred a condition of reciprocal non-confirmation which - even now – does not stop producing damages. During the twentieth century the labyrinthine situation did not change considerably. Overwhelmed by the logic of cultural industry, the consumer music adopted the tonality, trivializing it. The classical non-tonal music survived and survives inside a ghetto, living its own linguistic experiment with consequent, hopeless solipsism. Presages are sensed of a converging of the manifold extratonal codes towards a shared grammar, alternative to tonality. But not such as to allow easy and prompt solutions.

      A contrast could schematically be placed between extra-tonal and neo-tonal codes. The first – sometimes highly formalized, other times of extramusical nature – can be found in the writing of the neo-avant-garde of the Fifties in the twentieth century. The latter were exemplified most of all by the neoclassical poetics. Yet such schematization leaves unconquered the labyrinth which the off-glide of the codes has exceedingly magnified.

      It seamed that between extratonal and neo-tonal codes there were nothing but divarications. But both pointed out that the grammar, without which no linguistic action was possible, could not be set aside.

      Those who adopted an extra-tonal code (the so called avant-garde and neo-avant-garde) felt that the tonal code was used up and contributed – maybe – to the future birth of an alternative code, towards which the experimentations could be directed, allowing the sharing with a community no more deprived of a known grammar. They did not consider the role of listening to be of overriding importance and, without the contact of the listeners, they did not realize that their writing was turning to solipsistic solutions. In some cases it resulted in a radical denial of music as ‘art of sounds’ and therefore of listening. Sometimes the general refusal of the extra-tonal code involved in such refusal also well-made works; other times the preliminary liking for the extratonal codes did not allow to grasp the inefficacy and the detachment of some results.

      On the contrary, those who endorsed a neo-tonal code (the neo-classical, neo-tonal, neo-romantic composers) disclaimed reliability to any grammar but the tonal one. The more sagacious introduced crooked behaviors which would notify the present anytime that a linguistic aberration diverted the path of the well-known.  They certainly did not nominate themselves for solitude and incomprehension and contributed less to the birth of a code, at the same time new and shareable. They did not deny the role of listening but sometimes the easy comprehensibility and the consequent recognition of the adopted code allowed them to profit from the overestimation of the results summarily obtained from that code.

      During the twentieth century and the crisis of tonality, the adoption by the composers of a certain code of organization of sounds attributed to them the label of progressivism or regression which qualified them more for the ideological dispute than for the comprehension of their works. Furthermore, the same adoption of one code rather than another was overestimated. To connote the general aesthetic feature of a composer is a more complex operation than the census of the means adopted by the same composer. In a work merges a multiplicity of aspects which go well past the hypothesis of an harmonic organization of sounds. Schönberg is – from the formal point of view – sometimes much more ‘tonal’  and therefore ‘regressive’ than the ‘fauve’ Stravinskij.

      It is surprising to observe that those composers (Boulez, Ligeti, Messiaen and others) who experimented linguistic solutions unattainable to listening, once having overcome the phase of the linguistic radicalism, were able to give us works of great value, also from the communicative point of view. He who guided by good sense kept out of the way of remunerative, pernicious intellectual adventures and cultivated the practice of ‘communication’ and ‘expressiveness’ (dear to composers of ‘consumer’ music) has given us no convincing results. Among them, many are the admirers of Stravinskij. One then wonders, have they ever read what Stravinskij himself wrote apropos of communication and expressiveness?


      Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) –Viennese composer and theoretician, promoter together with his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, of the Second Musical School – in an essay titled Composition With Twelve Notes, enunciated a compositional code which he experimented first. More known as Dodecaphony, he called it ‘composition method with twelve notes connected one with the other only. In this method the author asserted some thesis here below synthesized.

1. Equality of all twelve notes of the chromatic-atonal scale

The chromatic scale, deprived of any internal systemic hierarchy and called chromatic total, was opposed to the disparity of the seven notes of the preceding diatonic-tonal scale, provided with an articulated and immanent hierarchy.

Inside the diatonic-tonal scale, each of the seven notes had a precise function and contributed to a dialectic between tension and relaxation. The tonal code, based on the two modes major and minor, actually assigned to the seven notes of each mode an articulation of roles which metaphorically was comparable to a gravitational system with two principal centers, correlated between themselves. Around one of these poles (the dominant or 5th grade of the scale) gravitated all the harmonic and melodic functions characterized by tension. The other pole (the tonic or 1st grade of the scale) drew to itself all the tensions present in the dominant and in the grades of the scale with it connected. In the golden ages of tonality (more or less placeable between the beginning of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century) there was a balanced dialectic between tension and relaxation. Coinciding with the adoption of the dodecaphonic (around 1920), Schönberg experimented the formal impotence and declared himself disorientated not being able anymore to make use of the ‘structural functions’ of the tonal harmony, by him denied. The formal unfitness of the adopted method (subjective or objective whatever) drove the composer in two different directions. Following the first one, towards which he moved for the instrumental music, the author carried out the historical regression towards pre-classical forms of the first half of the eighteenth century. They appeared to be extrapolated with arbitrariness from the tonal context whose mutual relation with such forms could not be disregarded. Following the latter, towards which he oriented himself for the vocal music, he turned to the organization of the literary text, whose formal expressions were imported in the musical architecture, unable to find in the dodecaphonic code, at least in the beginning, the occasions for structuring themselves autonomously.

2. Intuition of the idea of Series.

The melody – based on the articulated diatonic-tonal scale and endowed with those formal values allowed by the hierarchized scale – changed into Series, based on the disjointed chromatic-atonal scale. The imagined Series turned out to be deprived of formal values, not originated from the twelve undifferentiated notes. It followed that the annihilation of the harmonic dimension which, in virtue of the sanctioned equality of the twelve notes of the chromatic-atonal scale, lost every formal or structural functionality and became causal simultaneity of sounds. Those who have no familiarity with these problems will better understand the idea of series as regards that of melody thinking of the meaning of this word in the ‘serial’ (mass) industrial production: loss of individuality. The melody based on the tonal code was instead endowed with physiognomy which involved its harmony.

3. Spatialization of music.

Music, as ‘art of sounds’, actualizes itself in time, in whose dimension the execution and the listening take place. The space is involved only for what attains the musical notation. Schönberg stated what follows: ‘The two- or more dimensional space in which the musical ideas are presented is a unity’. In Schönberg the spazialitation of music was openly sanctioned with the statement just now reported. Coherently with this declaration, spazialitation was pursued reactivating ancient composition techniques in which the ‘mirror’ forms (which will be discussed later) substantialized the musical writing up to the point that they drove the sign, perceptible in space, towards a primacy on sound, whose evolution is perceptible in time.

     The mirror forms, of very ancient origin and characteristic of the contrapuntal advanced writing (be it of the XV or sixteenth century – example: Palestrina – or of the XVIII century – example: Bach) tend to an intrusion of the sign which, when not redeemed by the ability of the composer, mortifies the result of the composing, meant principally for listening. The mirror forms are based on the principle of imitation:
a.  by rectilinear motion;
b.  by contrary or reverse motion (or ‘Inversion’);
c.  by retrograde motion (or ‘Retrogradation’);
  for retrograde and contrary motion (or ‘Inverse retrogradation’).

In the counterpoint of the sixteenth and eighteenth century the imitation by rectilinear motion and contrary motion allowed a recognizability (superior or inferior, depending on the motion adopted) of what was imitated. The recognizability was instead radically compromised in the imitation by retrograde motion and reverse retrograde motion.

It can be deduced that a music based on the systematic use of counterpoint devices which tend to deny the listening is a music destined to sidestep it. With devastating consequences on the relation between the composer and his user.


      For long we have lingered on the composition code devised by Schönberg, because the largest part of the following codes, socially not shared, came from it. Besides, it is advisable to dwell on the not only subjective character of the outgrowing of the tonal code. Many composers foresaw that it could not allow a fresh invention anymore. Other composers, besides Schönberg and his School, sensed the necessity of overstepping tonality through the adoption of alternative linguistic solutions.

      Decline of tonality

    In the second half of the eighteenth century tonality, the musical code which starting from 1600 ruled all the experience of the classical western music, went through a progressive crisis. As the big tonal season was coming to an end also the number of compositions written by the great symphonists decreased sensibly. Isolating the form of Symphony from the context of its global output and, even though estimating their different lifespan and the different formal extent of their works, the historian of music notes a downward phase of a trajectory coinciding with the development of the tonal crisis. Haydn (1732-1809), Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven (1770-1827), Schubert (1797-1828), Dvõrák (1841-1904), Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Cajkovskij (1840-1893), Schumann (1810-1856), Brahms (1833-1897), Mahler (1860-1911) and Stravinskij (1882-1971) composed respectively 108, 52, 9, 8, 9, 5, 6, 4, 4, 9 and 2 Symphonies. The quantitative decline of the number of works was partly ascribed to the greater linguistic participation to which the big symphonists were induced from the progressive decay of the code used and from the necessity of preventing its dissolution through demanding interventions.

A. Beardsley: Isolde nurses Tristan

      On the threshold of the twentieth century the gradual decaying of tonality incited many composers to find new codes. The beginning of this crisis is usually dated back to the composition of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner (1813-1883): opera represented in Munich on the 10th of June 1865 but its first outlines date back to 1854 already. The analysis of the writing of Tristan reveals great linguistic upsettings. The corrosion suffered by the tonal system in the quoted opera is such that it undermines its foundations. In the golden times of tonality there was a balance between tension and relaxation. In Tristan this dialectic is annihilated in favor of a frantic increase of the tension and of the correlated ‘dominant harmony’. A physiological’ relaxation is denied to the latter. The linguistic consequences were enormous. Tonality suffered the first destabilization.

      After Tristan other linguistic changes contributed to invalidate the tonal system. Composers like Max Reger (1873-1916), Aleksander Skrjabin (1872-1915), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and others experimented the growing restlessness which were crossing the classic musical language and proposed different solutions: but all oriented towards the widening and overcoming of the tonal code.


       Chromatism and diatonicism.

       The prevalent and preceding diatonicism of tonality (diatonicism signifies the preponderance of the tone intervals inside the tonal scale) gradually but quickly gave way to chromatism (chromatism signifies the excess of the semitone intervals inside the tonal scale) which resulted increased in some composers of the second half of the nineteenth century.

       But the suspension of tonality was not pursued through chromatism only. Some authors adopted diatonic solutions in order to overcome tonality. Diatonicism existed before the assertion of tonality and survived its decline. It can be found in the ancient Greek music, in the Gregorian chant an d in the modal counterpoint of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century. Actually, diatonicism was present in the experience of some composers involved in the suspension of tonality. Their harmonies, deprived of architectural functionality, reached the outgrowing of tonality, without turning to the use of chromatism.

       Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is still perceived as the musician of the elegant harmonic atmospheres. No doubt that when we listen to the music of this very French composer it is not possible to evade the elegance of its proceeding. But that elegance envelops with a fragrant air such a linguistic subversion that it outshines the most loose-living avant-garde experimenter. Debussy actually imagined a metamorphosis of the harmonic dimension, gradually driving the latter beyond the age-old formal functionality. He allowed it to hover in a very gentle rainbow of sounds in which the predictable passing of time (that of the clock) was happily wrecked and induced the appearance – indeed  as if by magic – of the magical instant. Not at random two priests of the new music such as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez recognized in Debussy their Master, he who with intuitive knowledge and highest teachings conciliated linguistic invention and creative grace, with sublime results.

       Historical development of seriality: ‘integral serialization’
       Coinciding with the decline of the tonal compositional tradition, based on the primacy of melody and harmony, great importance acquired the new serial conceptions according to which the idea of series was extended to all the aspects of sound: the so-called ‘parameters’. The attribution of the series mentality to Length, Intensity (pianissimo, piano, forte, fortissimo etc.) and Attack of sound (staccato, legato etc.) brought to a serial organization not limited any more to the pitches only and called Integral serialization.

       Olivier Messiaen (French composer who lived between 1908 and 1992 and was the teacher both of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen) between 1949 and 1950 composed Four Studies on Rhythm, the second of which is called Modes of Value and Intensity. It is a composition in which the serial technique, by Schönberg applied only to the heights, was extended to the lengths (values) and to the intensities (forte, piano, etc.).

       In this aura of linguistic radicalism came into being works as:
       • Structures I (1952) for 2 pianos, by Pierre Boulez (1925);
       • Klavierstücke I-IV (1952-53) for piano, by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928).

       In these and other compositions of similar conception the integral serialization of all parameters of sound, for the compositional technique adopted, gave results which could not be ‘listened to’ but only ‘looked at’. During the listening these pieces of music did not communicate anything but their own denial to the listening. On the contrary, the visual analysis revealed the high grade of artifice and the abstractness present in that music. An example of that abstractness were the synchronies in which the fingers of the pianist had to produce simultaneous and various intensities. The thumb of one hand plays forte, the index piano, the middle finger fortissimo, the ring finger pianissimo and the small finger mezzo-forte. The fingers of the other hand are also engaged in a similar performance. After a few moments both hands must produce a new synchrony for whose execution the fingers of the pianist will be involved in different intensities as to those of the previous synchrony. How absurd!

       The wishful thinking of the results obtained with the integral serialization appeared such also to the same experimenters of that seriality. The fact of having subjected to the identical serial treatment heights, lengths, intensity and entry of sounds was the consequence of a misleading postulate: to consider comparable the four parameters quoted. But the rooted and ancient classic musical tradition had discriminated the intensity and the entry in favor of heights and lengths. Therefore a music based on the equalization of all the parameters of sound could not be ‘listened’ in a proper way by those who descended from a tradition to which that equalization was unknown and extraneous. Remember that J.S. Bach (1685-1750) entrusted all his music to an annotation in which the signs related to intensity and entry were systematically absent.  And yet his manuscripts reached us as fully intelligible. Instead, not one case is known of a western composer who has noted the intensity and the entry, depriving the annotation of the heights and lengths.

       The denial of communication as communication of the denial.
       The choice of compositional techniques producing results refractory to listening  originated also from the justified refusal of the last offshoots of a languishing operatic tradition, pregnant with an ‘expressiveness’ by now turned flabby and sweaty. To such an extent that some composers opted for works without no pseudosubjective connotation, abominating that ‘expressiveness’. Though very soon it was clear that one could not escape communication even if determined to exclude it. As taught in a memorable book of the School of Palo Alto (The pragmatics of the human communication) the ‘denial of communication ends in communication of the denial’. One might as well not propritiate it nor oppose it, but regain possession of the real and unique capacities of the composer.  Among which neither ‘communication’ nor its negation can be found. Once the impossibility of being ‘incommunicable’ was postulated, one turned back to those noble crafts which made great Bach, Mozart and other composers not engaged in communicating at any cost. As Stravinskij taught us. And as Berio, Boulez, Ligeti, Messiaen did later.

       The  rhythm
     Coinciding with the decline of a compositional tradition based on the primacy of the melody and of the harmony, the new concepts of rhythm and the concomitant recourse to percussion instruments acquired great importance. To the rhythm was given a primacy once unimaginable. In an essay by Pierre Boulez titled ‘Stravinskij remains’ the French musician declared that Stravinskij structured rhythm in a similar way as the composers of the Second School of Vienna did with the heigths.

       The fact of attaining ethnic groups of a rhythmically new folclore, the extension to rhythm of an all-reaching serial organization, developed – during the early twentieth century – the percussion component to such an extent that it gave rise to compositions for percussion instruments only: such are Ionisation (1929-’31) by Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), Circles (1960) by Luciano Berio (1925-2003), Zyclus (1959-’60) by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928), etc.

       Folklore. Non-western ethnic groups. New rhythms and instruments. The contribution of jazz

       The decline of the tonal code (no matter how it was perceived) urged many western poetics of the early twentieth century to invest attention and study in the popular music. A simple and authentic music whose traces were lost, with avid speed, by the cultural industry who replaced it with the consumer music – neither simple nor authentic. The light music, that of the commercials, and many sound tracks are not popular in the way they are meant by all of us. They dispense banality which does not characterize a census but a way of being.

       Composers drew widely from the uncontaminated  source of  the musical folklore. The Hungarian musician Béla Bartók (1881-1945), after exhaustive ethnomusical studies, inspired himself to the popular Hungarian and Balkan music chiefly revitalizing his own creativity. A similar behavior could be found in another Hungarian author Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and in the Czech composer Leós Janácek (1854-1928).

       The percussion was leading in the non-western cultures and geographies. The instrumental groups of Giava and Bali, called gamelan, and consisting principally of xylophones, gong, metal plates, bells, bamboo canes, appeared in the West. The gamelan – formed in the East probably already at the end of the thirteenth century – was not known in Europe but much later, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Claude Debussy met the sound of the Indonesian Gamelan at the World Exhibition of Paris in 1889 and was fascinated by it.

       The primitive art and its African version were an upsetting discovery for the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. In the Sub-Saharan Africa or ‘Black Africa’ the use of percussion instruments (mostly drums: African Drum is the name of a crack drum) was always common. He who recalls the lucky and long series of films dedicated to Tarzan, would remember the frequent recourse to the nominous sound of drums: an acoustic scenery inseparable from that of the African territory. In the Arabian area of Africa many percussion instrument were discovered, among which the much popular were the drums. Some of the latter extended the classical use of percussion.

       The popular music and the vivacious rhythmic dimension characterizing it marked a turning point in compositional experience of the twentieth century. The latter was so much influenced by rhythm that it converted in the sense of percussion also instruments before utilized for their harmonic and singable values. This metamorphose is witnessed by the transformation of the most prestigious instrument of the twentieth century: the piano. The percussion use that the twentieth century made of this instrument pushed it to become a non-soloistic component of the orchestra, related more to the sector of percussion than to others of the orchestra structure. In Petrouschka (Paris June 13, 1911) by Igor Stravinskij (1882-1971) the piano, present as an instrument of the orchestra, gave a conclusive contribution to the scansion of incisive rhythms.

       Both the composers influenced by the serial theory (Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, etc.) and those more pragmatically oriented (Béla Bartók, Sergej Prokof’ev, Igor Stravinskij, Paul Hindemith, etc.) carried out a radical revaluation of rhythm. From this perspective originated ensembles formed only by percussion instruments, as The Strasbourg Percussionists and the London Percussion Ensemble.

       Tied to rhythm is jazz which is substantialized by rhythm. To rhythm and to jazz the revaluation of percussion instruments is closely related. Jazz uses it also in small formations: trio, quartet, quintet, etc. The chamber structures of the western classical music in the eighth-nineteenth century never admitted the percussion. The small jazz groups include it systematically.  Such inclusion documents what importance jazz ascribes to the percussion instruments and to the rhythm they refer to.