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Conventional WisdomThe Content of Musical Form$
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Susan McClary

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780520221062

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520221062.001.0001

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What Was Tonality?

What Was Tonality?

(p.63) Chapter 3 What Was Tonality?
Conventional Wisdom

Susan McClary

University of California Press

At first glance, eighteenth-century European art music would seem to have little in common with the blues. Not only do the musical practices themselves bear scant resemblance to one another, but the temporal, geographical, and social locations of the personnel involved—disenfranchised African Americans versus composers working under the patronage of Italian courts and German churches—demand radically different modes of historical analysis. Yet just as many artists during our own era have found the blues a compelling template for musical and cultural expression, so eighteenth-century musicians embraced with great enthusiasm the particular cluster of conventions we call tonality. By juxtaposing these highly conventionalized discourses from two very distant cultural contexts, this chapter proposes to defamiliarize temporarily the musical premises those in musicology most often accept as “purely musical.” As with the blues in Chapter 2, it asks how eighteenth-century procedures intersected with and helped to structure the social world in which they played active roles. The eighteenth century was a period of almost unparalleled confidence in the viability of a public sphere in which ideas could be successfully communicated, differences negotiated, consensus achieved. The chapter asks why the particular musical conventions that crystallized during this period appealed so much to musicians and audiences of the Enlightenment. What needs did they satisfy, what functions did they serve, what kinds of cultural work did they perform? The chapter concentrates especially on tonality, the convention that undergirds and guarantees all the others, discussing how it constructed musical analogs to such emergent ideals as rationality, individualism, progress, and centered subjectivity.

Keywords:   blues, European art music, tonality, eighteenth century

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