Music 398: Tonality at the Fringes

Course Introduction

The story often goes that the 20th century found tonality to be in crisis in Western art music. The tantalizingly irresolute harmonic dissonances in the opening of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde had spiraled to such an extent that composers like Arnold Schoenberg were, after the turn of the century, calling for “the emancipation of the dissonance.” But this narrative leaves out the work of a wide range of composers who did not see the potential of tonality as exhausted. Did the common-practice tonality exemplified by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart adapt in their hands? Or were those stylistic norms eradicated altogether in favor of something wholly new?

This class will explore the music of late 19th- and early 20th-century tonal composers including Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price, Marion Bauer, Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel, and more. We will also turn the clock back to music from Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Might some of these so-called “pre-tonal” works hold clues about the ways that late Romantic and jazz composers sought both to push and preserve some markers of tonal practice? We will also consider questions of tonal composition, patronage, and identity in the 20th century: to what extent were tonal composers considered "less serious" (and by whom)? What role did institutions (new or old) play in the promulgation or suppression of this music? How did these aesthetic debates play out along racial, gender, sexuality, or class lines?

III. Learning outcomes

By the end of the semester students should be able to:

Understand tonality as a surprisingly mutable constellation of compositional and listening practices
Analyze (aurally, orally, and in writing) tonal music with specificity, intersubjectively meaningful vocabulary, and musicality
Demonstrate familiarity with specific compositional techniques through creative composition
Think critically about the act of music analysis, its utility to you as creators and consumers of a wide range of music, and the historically and culturally contingent relationship between technical praxis and aesthetic values

IV. Course Materials

There is no textbook for this course. All needed materials (scores, readings, and recordings) will be posted to OnCourse.

Students wishing to do remedial or supplemental work in tonal harmony should consult the following resources (any edition is fine and all are available in the library):

    Steve Laitz - The Complete Musician. Oxford University Press.
    Jane Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin - The Musician’s Guide to Theory and
        Analysis. W.W. Norton.
    Joseph Straus and L. Poundie Burstein - Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony. W.W.
    Robert Gauldin - Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music. W.W. Norton.

These online resources may also be useful:
        — Guide to Western instruments and their playing techniques
        — For drilling fundamentals

V. Grading and assignments

Homework                     10%
Presentation on a composition (in pairs)    20%
Presentation on a reading (solo)        20%
Midterm composition                20%
Final project                    30%

List of topics by 90-minute class meeting in 2021 course offering:

Introduction / Chopin / Review
What is tonality?
Matthew Morrison guest lecture
Marion Bauer
Composition responses 1
Composition responses 2
Maria Schneider (Ben Geyer guest lecture)
What meaneth “pre-tonal”?
de Lassus, Gesualdo
Homophony in the 17th century
Megan Long guest lecture
contemporary “modal” music
Pop, blues, and rock harmonic syntax 1
Pop, blues, and rock harmonic syntax 2
Caroline Shaw