Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

On Tonality and Atonality

Experience suggests that atonal music, including that of Schoenberg, Webern, and especially Berg, derives its effect precisely from its relationship to tonality, whether we hear anything tonal in the immediate context, or not. Tonality is one of the great, elemental human inventions, like mathematics or written language. It is not simply an accident of history, limited to another time and place, and it is not merely an artistic option, although it doesn’t preclude other compositional explorations. But the fact is, it was Schoenberg, with his private societies, closed concert rooms, and eventual retreat to the university—who prompted the inexorable academic arrogating of musical authority, and the subsequent prohibition of tonality as a foundation for contemporary “serious” composition. Schoenberg declared, “If it is art, it is not for all. If it is for all, it is not art.” Milton Babbitt took this declaration further, to assert, “Who cares if you listen?” To paraphrase Schoenberg, “If it is art, it is not for anybody.” Or at least, not for anybody in particular.

Interestingly, Schoenberg, without doubt a great and original composer, himself also affirmed that there were “a lot of good pieces still to be written in C major” [cf. Roger Sessions, 1944].

Here is an interesting video addressing some these concerns: “How the West Rejected Nice Music a Century Ago,” by Steven Cassedy:

Here is a column by concert pianist Stephen Hough, which asserts similar points about the relationship of tonality and atonality, and the symbiosis that arises from this relationship:

Commentary © 2015 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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