Tonality Has Landed!

We are witnessing a truly momentous juncture in the history of harmony: the birth of harmonically controlled and elaborated form. In the Italian instrumental music of a rough quarter-century enclosing the year 1700, we may witness in their earliest, “avant-garde” phase the tonal relations we have long been taught to take for granted. (II, 195)

Witness, for instance, this sonata by Arcangelo Corelli (op. 3 no. 11). The second movement, marked presto [at 1:23 in the video], follows the basic harmonic path that would eventually spread like wildfire and be encoded in our musical DNA (and music theory textbooks) ever since: I to V, V to I. Taruskin weaves the musical narrative:

The hocket effect between the violins is intensified after the first cadence (m. 7), their tossed motivic ball now consisting of only two notes in an iambic pattern (that is, starting with an upbeat), while the bass continues its frenetic run, made even more athletic by the use of large skips—octaves, ninths, even tenths. At the movement’s midpoint (m. 21) the original motive is tossed again, this time beginning a fourth lower than the opening—i.e., on the fifth degree of the scale. Thus the movement over all has the satisfying harmonic aspect of a binary form: a run out from I to V, and a run back from V to I. (II, 181)



  1. Sator Arepo says:

    Tonality had indeed landed, as it were, and it only took 200 years to *try* to put it back in its box. Er, kind of unsuccessfully.

  2. Mark Samples says:

    As you hint, Sator, the story is far more complex than I let on in my post. There was no point in history where everyone flipped a switch and started thinking/writing tonally. Nor is “tonality” stationary—it is a dynamic concept whose ideal state changes with (and within) each generation.

    I’m always interested in tracking how historians follow the development between modal and tonal paradigms, and in a nutshell this is how Taruskin deals with it.

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