Fétis’s Racial Frame of Tonality (Part II)

Thomas Christensen

[…] Continuation of: Part I

I have to admit it was a rude shock when I learned of Fétis’s virulent racist views. It was especially deflating as I had invested so much time working on my study of his theory of tonality and its reception only to belatedly discover that my protagonist ended his life as an out and out racist. To be sure, there were unsavory moments in many of his earlier writings. But for reasons that I try to outline in my book, his earlier writings were tempered by Kantian liberalism. His full-frontal embrace of the most aggressive tenets of biological racism in his final writings was truly an alarming change of heart.

So what was I to do? I was not ready to give up my book project and simply “cancel” Fétis (as the expression seems to be today). My book was a historical sketch of an undisputedly important music scholar from the 19th century, even as the picture I was drawing became increasingly more complex and disconcerting. And I did not want to turn my story of Fétis’s Faustian choice to embrace the darkest corners of racial biological thinking into a didactic morality tale for our times. Anyway, as far as I know there are no statues of Fétis to take down. (Well, check that; there is a bronze bust of him to greet visitors in the lobby of the Brussels Conservatory of Music, which he helped to found.)


But what about his key concept of tonality? That is something that certainly still lives on in our discipline of music theory, even if we may not have always recognized its burdensome legacy. To be sure, few of us use the term tonality in the aboriginal way in which Fétis conceived it. Nonetheless, it may be that the term to this day contains something of its 19th-century DNA even if we may not be aware of it. Certainly, traces of its biological “frame” often seeps into the metaphors with which we sometimes speak of tonality.

Think of how we often trot out clichés about tonality using images of ontogenetic growth and decline: the 17th century saw the “birth” of modern tonality, the 18th century witnessed its full “maturation,” while in the late 19th and  early 20th century we see the “decay, ” “crisis,” or perhaps even the “death” of tonality. (Much of this rhetoric has been brilliantly analyzed by Brian Hyer in his New Grove entry on “Tonality.”) Fétis seemed to be ever vigil about policing the boundaries of tonalité moderne. It was one reason he was so obsessed with finding its precise birthdate (he arrived ultimately at 1605 for this happy moment); but he also worried about its degeneration with the increasing encroachment of the ordre omnitonique  and all its many affective affinities and vertiginous modulations. Even more objectionable, in his view, were the attempts of some modern composers to write hybrid varieties of tonality that combined features of modern tonality with antiquated modal resources, or worse, tonalities of the Orient. It was a sin of tonal miscegenation. It’s no surprise, of course, that in the 20th century, music critics within Nazi Germany condemned almost any deviation from the most conservative models of harmonic tonality as degenerate art (while at the same time claiming tonality as the exclusive musical patrimony of the Aryan race). Yet anxieties of the “borders” of tonality continue to be raised in theoretical literature. Schoenberg may have mocked the question of “Tonal oder nicht Tonal?” with a canon; but arguments over its answer became a veritable killing field in the world of 20th-century music aesthetics and analysis.

It’s surely unrealistic to say we should just jettison the term. If we didn’t have the word “tonality” we’d have to invent something as a synonym to describe a tonal practice that covers a huge swath and timespan of  Western music in which most of us intuit common salient features, even if we might disagree on the precise physiognomy of these features. No, we are probably stuck with the term.

But that doesn’t mean we need be insensitive to how we think about and use the concept of tonality in our theories and analyses. On the contrary, our increased awareness of its fraught origins in Fétis’s writings could inspire us to greater care in how we go about distinguishing  norms and varieties of tonality as well as defining their boundaries (if that is indeed what we want to do). For that matter, maybe the whole regime of our taxonomic-centered discipline might be due a good rethinking. In any case, as historians of music theory, perhaps we can play a salutary role in teaching our colleagues a little of the history in which some of the terms by which we analyze and teach music originated—and have become our own.  That kind of historical and cultural positioning is a frame that we all could use.

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