View from New York: Tearing Tonality

Greg Sandow

We were on the bus, my wife and I, coming downtown from Lincoln Center, when we overheard two people talking about something they’d just seen. The best performance in 30 years, they said. We were not in work mode that night; we were coming home from the movies, and smiled when we saw the concert crowd get on the bus with us. Better them than us, I thought, glad to have a night away from work.

But the conversation drew us in. What performance was the best in 30 years? We couldn’t help ourselves; we asked. “Salomé,” they said, “at the Met.” And of course we should have known, since nothing else has been causing such excitement lately. We saw it, in fact, a week later, and it really was exciting, above all for Karita Mattila‘s embodiment (in the most carnal sense) of the title role; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an opera singer so possessed by anything, with singing so rooted in her flesh.

The people on the bus, thrilled to talk about their evening, told us what they’d loved so much, and part of it was the “discordant” music, which fit the story, they thought, and also fit the way the opera was staged.

Which raises a curious question. Why should a Strauss opera—a pillar of the repertoire, performed and recorded over and over—still sound “discordant,” just about 100 years after its premiere?

Well, one answer might be that these nice people on the bus—even if they’ve been going to the opera for 30 years (almost one-third of Salomé‘s life, an odd thought; even odder, when you know that Salomé was too scandalous to join the Met’s regular repertoire until as late as 1933)—just aren’t used to dissonance. It still surprises them, unsettles them, though in Salomé they understand it. A woman kisses the bitter lips of a severed head. Would you harmonize her music like a Bach chorale? (Yes, maybe, for postmodern shock or irony, but that’s a different story. Though Strauss does give his anti-heroine some gauzy cotton candy in pure C sharp, which made me almost nauseous.)

But I don’t think we can simply call these people ignorant, because there’s more going on. I know I’ve already written, in my screed here on atonal music, that atonal harmony is linked, historically and perhaps by nature, to anxiety and shock. Now I want to look at another side of that same question, which is where the emergence of atonal music left tonality. Or, anyway, I want to look at part of that. (It’s a huge discussion.) Because some of Salomé‘s discordance shocked me, too. Not the well-known blatant dissonances, like the notorious chord just before the end, basically an F sharp major chord (the subdominant of C-sharp) with a raucous A seventh (A, C-sharp, E, G) jeering at it.

And not the disconnected chord progression that comes right afterwards, D minor, B seventh—with a tenor shrieking high B-flat above it—and then a short scale (in the voice) and dissonant rush (in the orchestra) up to a final C minor. These harmonies don’t really assail traditional tonality, even though they’re obviously not found in it. All they do (thinking now of what Marcel Duchamp did to the Mona Lisa) is draw a moustache on it. They’re like graffiti, especially that famous chord.

What disturbed me more were passages like this one:


This, prolonged for quite a while—and the alternating half and whole step trills are a deranged and brilliant inspiration— is, to put it mildly, tonally ambiguous. I don’t know where I am when I hear it. Especially since it comes out of music with no real home, music that lurches from G major through A-flat and D-flat, back to G, and then, moving through the passage I’ve just quoted, to E and then into a noisy, E-flat-oriented chaos, out of which it settles, for a bit, into some weird kind of D minor that allows chords that could just as well show up in an atonal Schoenberg piece.

We’re well on the way to atonality here. It’s disorienting to hear all this in the opera (as I’m sure it’s meant to be; it comes in the scene where Salomé tells Herod that she wants the head she’s going to kiss). Not long before the place I quoted, the little flick of that triadic phrase shows up in B major, against a trill on D-natural, and then in E minor, against a trill between A and B-flat. It’s scary.

But this raises yet another question. Why exactly are these places scary? The harmony itself, against the broader canvas of the last hundred years, can hardly be remarkable. Cheerful Schoenberg pieces, like the Serenade, or the Piano Suite, Op. 25, have—if we’re grading music on its deviations from triadic consonance—far more tangled harmony. So why should they sound pleasant, while Strauss sounds creepy?

I had the same question about Mahler’s Third Symphony, when I heard Christoph Eschenbach conduct it in Carnegie Hall, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Parts of the last movement seemed to rip and tear tonality, though, analytically, the harmony is only striking glancing blows—with prolonged appoggiaturas, or else with chords made (no matter how distracted they may sound) from nothing more unusual than voice-leading.

And yet I felt the tonality almost tangibly stretch, as if someone were pulling at my skin. Everything of course resolved into the shining (almost blatant) D major of the conclusion. And yet it tore at me. I can still feel, or imagine that I feel, the ache where my skin was pulled.

Maybe this happens because these moments are prolonged, so that even analytically prosaic appoggiaturas begin to seem like something strange, pointing away from standard harmony, no matter how normally they might (after quite a while) resolve.

But still we haven’t answered the most basic question: Why is all this harmony unsettling, after all these years? And with atonality so easily accepted now—or at least by me, and, I imagine, most everybody else in new music. Why is Mahler’s harmony wrenching, for me, when, in his atonal pieces, Schoenberg’s isn’t? Clearly, it’s at least in part because of the harmonic context. In Schoenberg, you don’t expect a resolution, so the busy dissonances don’t set up any expectation. While in Strauss and Mahler, there’s of course a tonal context. We hear progressions that we understand; we know where they’re going, or at least where they ought to go, and any deviations can dramatically stand out.

Plus there’s a larger context, implicit, but still almost physical. That’s the culture, musical and otherwise, of the time when this music was written. Within that culture, things were tearing. Why else would Strauss write an opera about a woman—from the Bible, no less—who makes love to a severed head? The opera was a shock to many people, was banned in Vienna, caused scandals in New York (and then disappeared for nearly 30 years). The Met’s program book told a droll story about Elgar, visiting New York to conduct an oratorio at the time when Salomé first was causing scandals at the house. Elgar was asked to join a gathering, to pray for protection from the opera! (Or something like that; I’m not sure I remember.) He refused, of course.

Everything was changing, everything was questioned—art, sex, morality, politics. Modern life was dawning (had been dawning, really, for quite a while, but now was hitting very hard), in all its ambiguity. Soon World War I would sweep the old life away, on piles of corpses. The shudder running through the western world was echoed in its music. We can feel that even now, just as we can feel a sense of boundless possibility (boundless for that moment, anyway) in Elvis’s first records, or the dawning of yet another new era in Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” even though it’s just the simplest of songs. Of course these are performances, and so the flavor of their moment is easily preserved, but I think the flavor of a time can survive in written music, too, in all the life we feel between the notes, in everything that mostly lies beyond analysis, everything that makes us listen, even to pieces hundreds of years old.

And yet it’s not obvious that the shudders in older music should survive. Something survives, but not necessarily shocks. Beethoven, too, lived at a time when giant changes were in motion, and the shock of what he put into music helps to give his pieces—somehow entering their musical genetic code—the vitality that we still feel.

But we don’t sense the shock of the crashing dissonances at the climax of the development section of the “Eroica” the way people did when they were new. When, in Schubert’s songs, the harmony shifts without warning, we don’t start crying, the way some people in Schubert’s first audiences did. Those harmonic shifts sound expressive to us, and certainly deft, but they don’t take the ground out from under our feet. If we happen to hear Rossini‘s Mosé (his opera about Moses), the prayer the Hebrews sing when they cross the Red Sea won’t make us literally lose consciousness, as happened to some people in Rossini’s time, unsettled by what now seems to us a simple oscillation between G minor and B-flat, unable quite to find a home in any key, but not shocking for that, to our ears.

The chaos at the start of Haydn’s Creation doesn’t sound chaotic any more, and we don’t have visions of God when we hear the “Hallelujah” chorus. So why, then, do Strauss and Mahler still shake me, with music that’s now quite old? I think it’s because the musical issues that they faced—maybe the social issues, too—are still with us. Tonality is far from dead. We could say it’s old, that it’s been superseded, that we’ve moved beyond it, that we have possibilities, resources that it never knew about. And all that’s true. But still it’s alive, everywhere around us, as unshaken as it’s ever been.

Though I notice changes. The survival of tonality—old tonality, not any new editions—in the concert hall is just a little musty, and sheltered, too. And then in pop, tonality is stretched and shaken, mutated, really, by new sounds, new kinds of noise, a welcome roughness never dreamed about in harmony textbooks. (To analyze a rock song, write out the chord progression and any other purely notational data you think might matter, then carry the paper around in your pocket for a week, spill food on it, leave it out in the rain). It’s also bounced around by something that must come from using guitars so much—chords are single, undivided sounds, not constructed any more from separate voices, and thus can be connected any way that anybody likes.

But somehow, even so, we’re still reliving the years when tonality first was challenged. The seismic shaking still goes on. It’s almost as if atonality never happened, except maybe as a musical sign for angst (play Webern‘s Six Pieces for Orchestra for 12-year-olds; “it’s music for a horror film,” they’ll say, not wrongly). Certainly atonal music occupies a place of its own, separate from the mainstream. Certainly—to me, at least—it sounds uneventful. Emotionally uneventful, I mean (I can just see whatever hordes might still remain of Babbittphiles, descending on me with diagrams of fabulous, fantastic structural events in atonal works, diagrams they’ve never eaten off, or left out in the rain). Atonal harmony doesn’t seem to create, or help build, or get built into (whatever the right expression ought to be) emotional events. Certainly atonal music isn’t problematic, to anyone who easily accepts it. It doesn’t—maybe just because it hasn’t had a chance to, though I think there are deeper reasons—carry attitude, the way tonal music can.

So let me finish by saying what I mean by attitude. I’ve been listening a lot to Shostakovich, a composer I unaccountably never understood till recently. (Too much training in atonal music?) We all know the dispute about the meaning of his music, whether it carries an anti-Stalin subtext. I don’t have any doubt that it does, in part because the Thirteenth Symphony is about as explicit an anti-communist statement as anyone living under the Soviet regime could make. Shostakovich wrote it in the early ‘60s, during the first years of Khrushchev’s rule, when artists for a little while were freer.

The entire piece—it’s all vocal music, darkly written for bass soloist and a chorus of basses, setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one of the most outspoken anti-regime voices of that early ‘60s “thaw”—attacks the Soviet state, with movements that attack Soviet anti-Semitism (a forbidden subject, because, according to orthodox Soviet belief, there couldn’t be any such thing in a socialist state), that worry horribly about a return to Stalinist terror, and, very sadly, show us threadbare Soviet women waiting in long lines to buy food. The critical message was clear enough to keep—according to a marvelous anecdote in Shostakovich and Stalin, Solomon Volkov’s new book about Shostakovich and Stalin—communist political operatives stonily sitting in their seats, preventing, with almost unanimous swipes of their arms, their wives from joining the standing ovation that greeted the premiere. (Volkov also has important evidence, for those really into this, that Shostakovich wrote much of his Seventh Symphony before World War II, and called the famously oppressive march in the first movement—long thought to represent the Nazis—his “Stalin theme.”)

But one moment in the work, for anyone who knows Soviet culture and Shostakovich’s own history, is especially telling. The final movement is a bitterly sarcastic attack on careerism. This in itself is double-edged, since the regime itself denounced careerism, as improperly selfish and thus non-communist. But of course its own officials were the worst careerists. As the movement proceeds, the chorus lists great figures who weren’t careerists. Isaac Newton is one of them, and next comes Tolstoy. “Lev?” asks the soloist, of course meaning Leo Tolstoy (“Lev” being the Russian nickname for Leo). “Lev!” confirms the chorus.

I have a quaint, Soviet-era score, which I think is still the only one available. It comes equipped with footnotes, and the one for this passage is priceless. “Although there are other personalities in Russia called Tolstoy,” says the score, with an entirely straight face, “the ‘question and answer’ point clearly to Leo Tolstoy. The very emphatic answer in the chorus alludes to the double-meaning [sic] Russian word (Lev = Leo: Lion).”

Yeah, sure. One of those other Tolstoy personalities, Alexei Tolstoy, played a crucial role for Shostakovich. When his Fifth Symphony premiered, Shostakovich was in trouble with Stalin. An attack in the Soviet press had, essentially, threatened him with death for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and he’d had to withdraw his Fourth Symphony. This was in the midst of Stalin’s terror; Shostakovich could have been arrested, and then sent to a labor camp or shot. As everybody knows, the Fifth redeemed him. The communists decided it was true Soviet music, with a final movement that—as was actually required—brought triumphant victory, a glowing tribute to the achievements, past, present, and future, of, God help us, the “new Soviet man.”

Alexei Tolstoy was the writer who delivered that verdict in the Soviet press. He was speaking for Stalin; he was a toady, the voice of the regime. Now, I know (because the Soviet Union is a hobby of mine, dating far back to when I was in college) that more honest Soviet writers routinely used what they’d call “Aesopian” language to attack their government, choosing phrases that meant one thing on the surface, and something else to those who understood. The “Lev” moment in the symphony struck me as exactly that. Whatever the editor of the score might have us think, what it said to me was, “Leo Tolstoy?” “Well, no way it’s Alexei!”

Which would mean that Yevtushenko and Shotavkovich (who worked together closely on the symphony) contrived a rebuttal to that long-ago review—and also, pretty clearly, to that long-ago endorsement of the Fifth. “No way my symphony meant what that guy said,” Shostakovich seems to say, right in the middle of a piece whose meaning is, “No way do I like what’s going on in my country.” The real meaning of the Fifth would then be exactly what Testimony—Shostakovich’s disputed memoir (which Volkov brought to the world)—suggests: It’s an angry, pained, sarcastic piece, whose finale shows us not real happiness, but forced rejoicing.

We know now that many people who heard its premiere thought that’s what it meant. I once met Yevtushenko, and asked him if I was right about that moment in the Thirteenth Symphony. “Of course!” he said, with a gigantic smile, in the course (I should add, in case anyone thinks he was only trying to please me) of a long conversation with both him and Yuri Temirkanov (who was about to conduct the Thirteenth Symphony in Baltimore, and had conducted one of its first performances in Russia when it was new), in which both men said that the piece was anti-communist, and also that they’d themselves heard Shostakovich say to them the things we read in Testimony (which means they had no doubt that the book is accurate, even if every word, as skeptics accuse, didn’t come from Shostakovich).

All of which is a long digression, to set up my final point. If the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony is bitterly sarcastic, then his Sixth—my favorite music, this week—is surely more so. On its face, it’s one of the strangest symphonies I’ve ever heard. First there’s a slow movement almost half an hour long, mournful, tragic, unrelieved. Then come two short fast movements, which seem to blow the first one away. “Oh, that sad stuff? Come on, I didn’t mean it!” The final movement ends the work with a crazy circus march.

How could anybody write a piece like that? Well, if you’re—to use a fabulous old ‘50s word—a total square, you could think that Shostakovich meant to move on from tragedy, and that the circus ending offers pure and radiant delight. Or, to quote the introduction to a 1945 score I found in the Juilliard library (this was written by an American leftist, whose politics I might have shared back then, but who now seems painfully naïve):

Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony was composed in 1939. It is said to have been inspired by Mayakovsky‘s poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but there is no indication of this in the score itself.…

The Sixth Symphony represents an effort by Shostakovich to integrate his artistic life with the new life of the Soviet Union. In Shostakovich’s own words [to save his life, he said a lot of things he didn't mean], “The symphony is an effort to convey the mood of spring, joy, and life.”…

The final movement is essentially rhythmic in character. The mood is one of merriment, and the marching song [his term for what I call circus music] gives brightness in spirit to the entire movement.

Once again Shostakovich—but this time with the glorious model of Lenin in his mind—faced pain and tragedy, and surmounted them, to end in optimistic triumph. Except that the music doesn’t sound remotely like that. It sounds wild and desperate, saying (to me more clearly than the ending of the Fifth), “You want happiness? I’ll give you happiness!” With teeth.

He got away with that. But here’s the question I want to ask—could he have made any statement half so powerful with atonal music? Well, obviously not, because atonal music wasn’t allowed in the Soviet Union, but suppose he’d been composing somewhere else. Could atonal music sound so wildly, bitterly sarcastic? I don’t think so. Look at Berg. He, too, referred to popular styles. He wrote a ghastly military march in Wozzeck, and both quasi-jazz and queasy, quasi-tonal love music in Lulu. But he stands apart from most of what he’s playing with. (The painful love music is the exception; he really seems to feel the same attraction to death that the music tells us Lulu feels).

Berg doesn’t, in our terms, have attitude. When he writes the military march, which plays while Marie ogles the drum major, he in effect just says, “Here’s what I think of this.” He wears his social criticism openly. You don’t need a decoder ring to know what Berg thinks of militarism, or macho soldiers. Even squares can understand him.

But Shostakovich seems more modern. He seems caught up in what he hates. He had to be. You had to endorse the Soviet regime; you couldn’t be neutral. The parallel, for us, might be pop culture, though our nuances are different. We don’t have to endorse pop culture, but we can’t avoid it. Thus we have pop music with two kinds of DNA, the dual genetic codes of smash pop hits and of music that’s opposed to smash pop hits. Shostakovich had this double life as well, mixed, I think, with something else, a real love for manic pop styles, including circus music, which gives the Sixth Symphony yet another queasy edge. Circus music really might have made him happy. So by using it sarcastically, he adds a note of really personal—because it’s expressed in music—bitter disappointment, as if he’d said, “I wish I really could enjoy myself this way.” Or at least enjoy himself without a completely conscious kind of wild denial.

To make this work, you can’t distort or parody the styles you quote. You may not quote them literally—you’re quoting them in attitude—but still they’re living purely in your heart. And since almost all the music that has this kind of meaning for any large number of people is tonal music, then you can’t write this way atonally. Or if you did, you’d be making private jokes, which almost guarantees that your music wouldn’t have the power of the bitter public jokes in Shostakovich. How, then, can you grapple with the world with any attitude, if you write atonally?

This isn’t a battle we have to fight any more; hardly anybody says composers have to write atonal music. But I’ve been through fights about that, and what I’ve written helps me understand why.