Mod squad

I’ve been feeling awfully lazy and unproductive lately, but I suppose it’s always a productive day when you can predate the Oxford English Dictionary. The word in question is atonal, which the OED dates in English from 1922:

1922 A. E. HULL in Musical Opinion Oct. 48/1, I have been working for two years at a system of non-tonal harmony, which I had long been unable to christen. Now, after visiting no less than seven foreign countries I not only find that the thing is widely known as Atonality, but [etc.]. Ibid. 48/3 Keyboard chord-writing as well as linear, tonal as well as Atonal.

Well, if the thing is already widely known, then maybe we’re not quite getting on that bandwagon early, are we? And, in fact, a little investigation finds the French-English critic M. D. Calvocoressi using the term a full decade earlier than that. From “The Origin of To-Day’s Musical Idiom” in the December 11, 1911 issue of The Musical Times and Singing-Class Circular (writing about Mussorgsky):

A score and more of such examples could be quoted. Not only these soft ‘atonal’ harmonies, but also the harsher whole-tome scales and aggregates, much used by Debussy and other contemporaries, appear in several parts of ‘Boris Godounov'[.]

Calvocoressi was a member of Les Apaches, the group of French artistic young-men-in-a-hurry that also included Ravel and de Falla, making a musical splash by defending Pelleas et Melisande from its critics. So it’s interesting to find atonal soon being taken up by the composer-pedagogue Vincent d’Indy, one of those critics, as a bit of a cudgel. D’Indy’s 1912 article “Le Bon sens” isn’t online, but you can find the American composer Daniel Gregory Mason quoting it:

“In the nineteenth century,” [d’Indy] says, “some Russian composers, in the interest of certain special effects, employed the scale of Whole tones, which one may name atonal because it suppresses all possibility of modulation. In the twentieth century Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel elaborated these methods, making often very ingenious applications of them; but they made the mistake (one must dare to speak the truth of those one esteems) of erecting processes into principles, or at least of letting them be so erected by their muftis, so that the formula now established by fashion is: ‘Outside of harmonic sensation and the titillation of orchestral timbres there is no salvation.'[“]

Because it suppresses all possibility of modulation. You start to understand why, even given late-Romantic levels of dissonance, atonality so bothered the d’Indys of the world—dissonance was OK as long as the movement from key center to key center remained purposeful and perceptible, but lose that modulation, and things start to seem random. Debussy doesn’t seem atonal to us, but his penchant for using familiar chords (dominant 7ths, for example) for color rather than modulatory function must have exacerbated that modulatory uncertainty—in a Heisenberg-like way, in fact. D’Indy’s ideal Conservatoire ear could never correlate where Debussy’s music was with where it was going.


  1. I think I actually snuck it in as a postlude once. (The score is < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>, for those not yet privy to the fun.) I ran across it while doing research for a performance of Liszt’s <>Via Crucis<> (1878)—in that usual Liszt sacred-profane way, the <>Via Crucis<> has movements a lot like the <>Bagatelle<>.I thought for sure that “atonal” would first turn up in a discussion of Liszt’s music, but “omnitonal” seems to be the phrase that his contemporaries—those who had the chance to hear pieces like the <>Bagatelle<>, at least—used. All those pieces were unpublished in Liszt’s lifetime, anyway: I know the <>Via Crucis<> wasn’t published until something like 1929, and the <>Bagatelle<> similarly took a long while to turn up.

  2. Huh. It seems to me that the whole tone scale (at least as envisioned by Messiaen, as the first of his “modes of limited transposition”) has the capacity to modulate (as it were) to the other whole tone scale.This possibility, whether or not avoiding a sense of tonic in either scale, is facilitated by the fact that all of the omitted tones in WT collection 1 are (naturally) 1 semitone from 2 tones in WT 2 (one above and one below), thus providing the possibility of the feeling or motivation of the half-step “pull”.Certainly it can be used as another or contrasting “key area” or some such nomenclature-ally bereft idea.

  3. I think it was the possibility for such rapid shifting that disoriented d’Indy so much. Oddly, he seemed to have no problem with Wagner and his epigones, even though I would argue that Wolf, for instance, gets a lot more moment-by-moment ambiguity out of all those augmented triads. But I was listening to <>Daphnis et Chloe<> the other night, and I could kind of hear the modulatory point—at any given time, you know aurally what key Ravel is in, but there’s far less ability to predict where he’s headed next. (I’ll have to go back and listen again, but I seem to remember Debussy having some fun in some piece—<>Images<>, maybe?—with conflating the half-step difference between whole-tone scales and common-tone key shifts.)

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