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Sonata-Allegro form as an expression of Christian faith

Written: August 20, 2006

First, a definition. This will take a while, and I’ll assume some amount of knowledge on the part of the reader.

Tonality: A multi-tiered system of organizing music around one of two kinds of seven-note subsets (a major or minor key) of the  twelve-tone scale in equal temperament. Most people understand tonality implicitly simply through exposure.

Tier 1: The notes in the key. The “tonic”, the first note in the key, is given primacy by the ear, the fixed center to which the other notes relate.

Tier 2: Chords (usually triads, groups of three) built by adding thirds to a starting note. The triad built on the “tonic” is given primacy by the ear. A triad will usually lead most satisfyingly to the triad built a fourth higher (fifth lower), and least satisfyingly to the triad a third higher. This level of tonality is based on finding ways of having the triad built on the fifth note in the key (the “dominant”) directly precede the “tonic” triad.

Tier 3: There are 24 different keys possible within the twelve-tone scale. Any two keys will have from two to six notes in common with each other; the more common tones between them, the more closely related they are considered. Because of this overlap, a “tonic” chord in one key may also be a “dominant” chord in another – this ambiguity allows for movement between keys, referred to as modulation. In an interesting parallel to Tier 2, keys that are a fourth apart have the highest number of common tones (see circle of fifths). This level of tonality is built on finding ways of modulating from the “home” key of the piece to another key(s) (usually closely related) and back.

Sidenote: In my view, a piece that is in a key is not tonal if it is not predicated on movement away from and back to the tonic, on the level of both Tier 2 and Tier 3.
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For as long as we have records of Western music, it has been predicated on the idea of returning home. The basic structure of tonal music, the aural journey away from and back to the home pitch and home key, is a powerful and compelling one. No matter how far we get from our starting point, we will always find our way back.

My contention is that tonality as a narrative structure is an expression and affirmation of faith: the sense that things will always be put right somehow; the belief that things will work out for the best, and no matter how far afield we roam, home will always be there for us.

(I’m going to assume that music can be considered to have a narrative structure, though I’m not entirely sure 1) if I buy it or 2) what that really means in a context that cannot have semantic meaning.)

This has obvious congruence with both the basic tents of and the paternalism within Christianity. The story of our expulsion from the spiritual world into the material, our wanderings and tribulations in the material world, and our reacceptance (with the forgiveness that implies) back into the world of the spiritual has clear parallels to the narrative of tonality as I outline above.

As something of a corollary, I think it’s relevant that atonality’s most strident and visible proponents, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, gained prominence during the grand disillusionment that was the emotional aftermath of the First World War. It may be something of a stretch, but what better way to express despair than music that has no recognizable center, nowhere to return to, and no convincing destination?

(Incidentally, this reminds me of a conversation I once had with my teacher about the lack of worthwhile serialists – who followed in the footsteps of those three – as partly attributable to the fact that these are people working in a method devised by three Germans in and around the First World War.)

This is not to say that those three were the first atonal composers. Most notably, Liszt (in his late years), Debussy, Ives, and Stravinsky were writing nontonal music even before The Second Viennese School. But most still used some of the “lower” tiers explained above (though in highly idiosyncratic fashion), while the SVS consciously tried to do away with every facet of tonality.
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At this point, I find it hard not to bring sonata-allegro form into the discussion, as it was for so long considered the apotheosis of all means of constructing tonal music. Another definition:

Sonata-Allegro Form: A method of structuring a piece of music predicated on tonal relationships. The first section (the “exposition”) begins with a first “theme” (a recognizable pattern of notes) in the home key, and modulates to a closely related key, in which a second theme is played. In the next section, the “development”, these themes are presented in a variety of different ways, often in many different keys. Eventually, the development leads back to the “recapitulation”, which is identical to the exposition except for the appearance of the second theme, which is now presented in the home key as well. Often a “coda” will be added at the end of the recapitulation to wrap things up. Generally also known as “sonata” form, though this term is slightly ambiguous.
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Here, too, are some clear similarities to Christian thought. Sonata form encompasses two stories: one of reconciliation, and one of returning home.

The story of reconciliation is expressed by the appearance of two different themes in two different keys, which interact and collide in the development, to be presented in the recapitulation in the same key, in harmony.

The story of returning home is expressed in the journey from the tonic key into the development, and back to the tonic key. The themes presented in the exposition are transformed and, if you will, tested in the development, wandering through an unpredictable and tumultuous landscape of different keys until they find their way back to the exposition – which, originally, was exactly the same as the exposition, (with the exception of the key of the second theme).

As sonata form is predicated on the tension caused by the departure from the home key, it loses much of its power in the absence of the pitch structure furnished by tonality; without a clear sense of home and center, there cannot be a clear sense of departing, reconciliation, and return.