Are the emotionally charged harmonic progressions in a Gesualdo madrigal tonal? Are Debussy‘s whole-tone passages or Benjamin Britten‘s mixture of fourths and clusters tonal? Like so many common terms in music, tonality is a terribly abused word, almost as misunderstood as the phrase Classical Music. It is a matter of historical fact, not opinion, that tonality, in a variety of manifestations, never disappeared from the scene. Atonality, another word that gets kicked around pointlessly, dominated musical thinking in certain circles only, and for a very short time.
Sad to say, it is quite common for people (including some musicians!) to use the terms tonality and atonality recklessly, one to mean consonance and the other to mean dissonance. Are you a tonal or atonal composer? Religious or Atheist? Cerebral or Emotional? Let’s face it, even asking are you male or female may not get a simple answer anymore, so how can a composer in this eclectic musical world of ours be expected to respond?
Here are some more choices to think about if you are a composer: should your music be tonal or tonally based, modal, modally derived but with a chromatic surface, atonal but not serial, twelve-tone, jazz-related and tonal, atonally jazz-related, electronic, concrete, minimal and tonal, minimal and modal, minimal and atonal, maximal and serial, ethnic mode related, klezmer-derived but with atonal layering, fusion of modes and chromatic atonality, etc.!
Like other composers today, I have come to see the entire history of music of the world—all its techniques and metaphors, its vocabularies and grammars—as my heritage to discover and explore and to use as necessary to express my ideas about life and music. A technique is not a style, but a means to developing a style, which is best thought of as a musical point of view.
For me, the piece itself determines much about what technical means I use. Writing a dark, serious piece about a friend’s disease and his acceptance of death as inevitable, I decided to compose an epilogue as a double canon, employing several Medieval modes in a strange polyrhythmic relationship. It is not strictly speaking tonal, nor is it atonal, and its resultant harmonies are as much about rhythm as about modality or tonality. When writing music in response to a painting of water by Paul Gauguin, I employed a long string of melodic patterns, which broke off into branches of smaller melodies, with the “harmony” created by a technique known as heterophony. Is this piece tonal? It is an irrelevant question.
As to whether I think of myself as a Neo-Romantic composer, well, no is the best answer. First, labels are limiting. An actor, asked if he were a character actor, leading man, comic actor, vaudevillian, villain-type, adventure star, Shakespearean actor, etc., would likely answer that he would like to try all of it. Type casting is easy, but often wasteful of talent. The fact that I have written music that strikes some as romantic, with or without a capital R, has no effect on my work habits or self-image. Technique is at the service of ideas, and my ideas change as I change.
As soon as one accepts a label as valid, things become fixed, and that, actually and ironically, is the very opposite of Romanticism. In Oscar Wilde‘s play The Importance of Being Earnest, there is some dialogue that puts it perfectly:
Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.
Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business.
Jack: How utterly unromantic you are!
Algernon: I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
Well, if I ever get labeled a Neo-Romantic, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact!
[Ed. Note: In Bruce Adolphe’s book Of Mozart, Parrots, and Cherry Blossoms in the Wind: A Composer Explores Mysteries of the Musical Mind, he addresses many similar issues much more thoroughly. It’s published by Limelight Editions, New York.]