Tonality and Musical Structure by Graham George



Professor George seeks to show that the structure of large-scale works c1600-1900 is essentially tonal rather than thematic. lf such a work begins and ends in the same key, he calls it a closed tonal structure; if not, he postulates two tonal structures interlocking. Some of them are quasi-palindromic (“mirror-structures”); most of them clearly reflect the principle of “opposite tonal relation”. This means that “if the second main tonal area… is on the bright side of the first, the third… must be on the dark side of the second” (“dark” and “bright” in the Toveyan sense). Similarly, classical sonata form is said lo be definable by tonal areas rather than thematic procedures. Part I exemplifies these ideas in dramatic music, Part II in instrumental. Part III ostensibly examines an alternative hypothesis, the so-called “principle of progressive tonality”. But really this part also just repeats the main theme, or rather key. Never was tonality so dominant or so major.

     All this is avowedly addressed to professional musicians and intelligent laymen (categories said to overlap, though they are surely exclusive in more ways than one). We can all agree with the author that the layman will not find his book easy going. No-one will. Indeed, most of it can hardly have been designed for discursive reading at all. It is essentially a study-aid to the works discussed, which one needs on one's table (or turntable) all the time. But over 70 scores are mentioned in fair detail; and many scores more are listed as directly relevant to the theories propounded. So no view (or review) of this book can well be more than partial, and some will surely be less; it is so very much more at home with musical than with verbal performance.

     Here is an entirely typical sample of the latter, in its expository mode.


The first of these presuppositions - that a work of art is a meaningful unit - implies among other things that its overall structure must be capable of expression in a few terms, For we are not capable of recognising as a single unit a structure expressed in a large number of terms. 


This is a key passage; all the more need therefore to avoid imprecision (“unit” for “unity”, capable of” in two different senses), tautology (“overall structure”, “single unit”) and other manifest confusions. However, exposition at any level occupies only some 5%, of the book. The remaining 200 pages describe past practice in terms of the present theory - whether in words or music or both together. For example, after a tonal diagram of Fidelio we are told that:


…the overall structure of Fidelio is perfectly clear as an interlocking structure. . This large-scale C structure contains a G structure which encloses an interlocking B flat/D structure, the D of which encloses an A-E-B flat/F-A (home-bright-dark-home) structure . . .


All in the house that George built, the unsympathetic reader may think.

     Now, in many respects this edifice is indeed edifying; it could provide an ideal home for (older) musicians, with deep foundations, spacious grounds, extensive views. But even a cursory survey reveals grave flaws. Thus the word “structure” is insupport­ably overstressed, as in the excerpt above. It occurs a dozen times on some pages, and about 500 in all (including the engaging tableau of Tristan and Isolde seen as “two huge interlocking structures”). Towards the end of the book the concept is belatedly defined, as eg“the mind's subjective reduction to comprehensibility of its experience of objective realty…“. But whose mind? By what objectively observable process or definable criteria? What reason is there to suppose that tonality plays the dominant part in the comprehension of musical structure? These, the actual questions at issue, are begged on the scale of a national flag-day. No real evidence is presented; no serious objections are anywhere encountered, let alone countered. Instead, on page after page, a defeated army of previous analysts is marched in sad disarray past Professor George, while he takes his own salute. His book, we are assured, contains “in matters of fact, no unreality at all” (if so, the finale of Beethoven op 127 begins with G minor, p.158, and op 130 begins Allegro ma non troppo, p.160). He has “only two prejudices: against middle-headedness and against dishonesty”. In such a style even a hypothesis “asserts”, even a principle “demands”.

     It seems to me that if a theory is advanced thus, its cause is not. Inflation risks explosion. And this is tragic, since these ideas may well, despite appearances, be essentially true and significant (if not entirely original). We retain the clear impression that Professor George with his keys can throw open new doors of perception (though what lies behind them he cannot say, and 70s may seem dear for that admission). The layman may at least gain some rare insights, egthat “the two C minor elements in the St Matthew Passion are textually concerned with ‘watching-over’”, or that in Tristan “the three defining areas of C major are all ‘arrivals’" . The professional however tends to be a busy man without much time for such views; his need is for a really demanding and incisive level of argument and discourse, with a full bibliography and accurate index. And every reader will need to know, not merely that the field of tonality can be cultivated in this way, but that it is in practice fruitful and sustaining to do so.

     At least there are the seeds of a crop of fine books here. Meanwhile Professor George has certainly shown a unique courage and initiative in delving down to the roots of music and irrigating its deepest conceptual levels, knowing that there by definition words will fail him, and perhaps his readers.


The Musical Times, Nov. 1970 (p. 1111) © the estate of eric sams