Thomas Christensen

Fétis and the Origins of Tonality

It is well known that Fétis dated the origins of modern tonality with the appearance of Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals in 1605, specifically in the opening measures of Cruda Amarilli, where an unprepared dominant-seventh chord is heard. Fétis’ confident dating of modern tonality did not go unchallenged in his own day, however. A number of critics responded to our Belgian music critic, usually citing pieces long predating Monteverdi’s as evidence of earlier apparitions of tonality. Among his critics were the chant editor, Louis Lambillotte, the German historian, Rafeal Kiesewetter, and two fellow Flemish musicologists: Charles Coussemaker and Francois Auguste Gevaert. But the stakes in these arguments were not simply games of one-upmanship. The arguments were ones that brought into question Fétis’ entire historical and theoretical project.  Both Kiesewetter and Coussemaker, for example, saw the origins of modern tonality already sprouting in certain vernacular practices of the early Middle Ages. For both of them, there were two kinds of tonality developing side by side:  ancient and modern. Gevaert, on the other hand, thought the true blooming of modern tonality did not occur until much later, specifically in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The implications of these polemics were manifold. They ranged from questions over the application of musica ficta in early music (would the imposition of un-notated sharps impose an anachronistic leading tone in the music?) to question of non-Western modes (might the micro-tonal inflections of Arabic and Indian music be heard as generating the same kinds of “appellative” tendencies that are according to Fétis the unique province of the tritone in modern tonality?). And then there is the metaphysical question as to whether tonality is indeed an ideal concept as Fétis claimed, or can be defined—and evoked—by specific empirical markers.