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Polytonality becomes Atonality: Gustav Holst, Mars

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I have heard several atonal works, and I have found what basically amount to 3 types of atonality. There is the atonality because of lack of harmony(12 tone music for example). There is the atonality because of meandering harmony that lacks a tonic(Satie Gymnopedies). And then there is the atonality from what I call "Tonic competition". This third type of atonality is what I hear in Mars from Gustav Holst's The Planets suite and is very closely related to polytonality.

Polytonality is where you have multiple keys at the same time. Most of the time, this is 2 keys, but it can be more than 2 keys, like for example 5 keys in the ending of Divertimento in F, Ein Musikalisher Spass(Sorry if I butchered the German spelling there, but at least I'm getting the pronounciation out clear) by Mozart. 

Here is an example of some dissonant but obviously polytonal music:

Eb major and E major is certainly a dissonant combination, especially the way Stravinsky uses it here. There are much less obvious examples of polytonality such as C minor and Eb major(these 2 keys together just sound like C minor and the polytonality only becomes obvious on paper). And even with 2 major keys at the same time, there are much more consonant combinations than 2 major keys a half step apart such as having them a sixth apart. Heck, even C major and C minor at the same time is much more consonant than Eb major and E major at the same time.

In Gustav Holst's Mars from The Planets, it feels to me as though this polytonality is taken to the max. I hear all these keys competing for the place of tonic:

  • G major
  • C major
  • C minor
  • F minor
  • Bb major
  • D major
  • A major
  • A minor

And there are probably even more competing for tonic than what I just listed. Because all these keys are competing for tonic instead of cooperating, it goes from feeling polytonal to feeling atonal. Even as it ends, it still feels atonal. This is what those last few chords sound like to me:

G major on top of a C minor chord base -> F minor -> Diminished harmony -> Pattern gets repeated multiple times -> GM/Cm continues until the very last chord -> C major

And the C major doesn't feel like a resolution any more than Bb major or D major would. The only sort of resolution I hear is dissonance -> consonance. I don't hear anything close to even a polytonal cadence.

This is actually the way Gustav Holst originally wrote it is for a piano duet. He orchestrated this piano duet version, but hopefully you can hear what I mean by "Tonic competition" going on here in the piano duet. Even when it gets to the G pedal, there are still multiple keys competing for tonic. No wonder this piece sounds like 2 pianists warring against each other, they can't even agree on the key, the tonic for one measure. Combine that with the octave rhythm of Triplet, quarter, quarter, eighth, eighth, quarter and the melody rhythm of Dotted quarter, eighth constantly and you really have a piano duet with the 2 pianists warring against each other, both harmonically and rhythmically. I'm actually surprised that this harmonic and rhythmic war doesn't sound any worse.

Basically what I am getting at with Mars by Gustav Holst, is that it feels like the polytonality has been taken so far that it becomes atonality. Do you agree with this assessment of mine? Do you feel as though it is multiple tonalities competing and in the process collapsing into no tonality?

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8 hours ago, caters said:

There is the atonality because of lack of harmony(12 tone music for example). There is the atonality because of meandering harmony that lacks a tonic(Satie Gymnopedies). And then there is the atonality from what I call "Tonic competition".

Wow, I think this is too risky.

Atonality means no tonal center, but not lack of harmony. There is harmony is every kind of music. Other thing is that the harmony you hear is not tonal and hierarchical according to classic standards.

In the Gymnopédies there are tonic centers. Again they are established in different ways. Most parts of Gymnopedies are modal. Modal music have also "centers", call them tonic center or whatever, but the music runs around the center.

Atonality and politonality is not the same. In bitonality you have TWO tonal centers, and in true bitonality you need full development of each tonality with dominants and tonics. In politonality, it's the same but with more tonalities. When there are no tonal centers at all, you have atonality. It was the progressive "obsession" of those composers, first Schönberg was not convinced of free atonality because it could have "hidden" tonal centers, and he developed atonal dodecaphonism. Serialism was a step further.

What happens in Mars is not politonality. For that, tonalities must happen simultaneously, not one after the other. I think Holst used bitonality here in some parts with centers on G and C#).

 

This piece by Ives is truly polytonal:

 

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12 hours ago, caters said:

I have heard several atonal works, and I have found what basically amount to 3 types of atonality.

What a way to start an argument.

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I don't know if you're being sarcastic, but I definitely am. Trying to categorize the entirety of a sound type while only having listen to several of its members? Why go into an argument leading off with an admission of lack of sufficient evidence? 

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There's just a lot of short term analysis in generating your argument. The slow section, for example, is based off parallel major triads as a harmony of an extended chromatic enclosure to a prolonged tonic that was previously established and is implied. It may not be tonal in the common practice way of thinking, but it's tonal in many, many other aspects that have extended from it. Without the aid of a computer, musical things are embedded in time; not everything is vertical. 

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@Monarcheon . Yes, I was sarcastic, of course. I'm sorry.

I think many fields in modern harmony are mixed in real composition. But we need to have clear what is atonality and what not. And what it politonality and what is a tonal center, etc... 

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1 hour ago, aMusicComposer said:

I don't understand how polytonality can be taken far enough to become atonality.

In my experience, they are different things.

 

Well, polytonality can certainly be unstable. And in general, the more tonics you have on top of each other in polytonality, the less stable it gets, even if say you have the tonics in fourths, giving a quartal sound(ex. Bb major over F major over C major is going to be less stable than either F major over C major or Bb major over C major, because it is 3 tonics instead of 2). 5 is the maximum number of tonalities that I have seen still sound polytonal. The closer the tonalities are physically, the more unstable it gets. Most unstable open interval for polytonality is the fifth, because that extra sharp or 1 fewer flat leads to a lot of dissonance. That's how come G major over C minor sounds as dissonant as it does, because of the major seventh and augmented fifth intervals between Eb and 2 of the notes of G major. F major on the other hand and you have a much more stable polytonal platform. Fourths and sixths are much more stable intervals between keys when you are dealing with polytonality in general. Thirds however are perhaps the most stable of intervals between keys in polytonality. So stable, that in some cases it may sound like just a single key(for example, a polytonal piece with 1 key being Eb major and the other being C minor is just going to sound like C minor, and it only becomes obvious on paper that it is polytonal).

If you layer polytonality on top of polytonality and combine it with supposed modulations, it really becomes unstable. Now, what if the rhythm gets involved, causing a rhythmic and harmonic war? For example at 1:13 in the Mars Piano Duet, I hear the second pianist on a C pedal, which combined with the dissonance I have already heard, tells me that this is most likely C minor. A second or 2 later and I hear F minor in the melody played by the first pianist. Even at the very beginning of that piece, I am hearing what sounds like D major over G major polytonality, with the melodic tritone sounding like C#°, the leading tone triad of D major. And the melodic rhythm is Dotted quarter, eighth in quite a few sections, whereas the rhythm of the harmony, that pedal point, is triplet, quarter, quarter, eighth, eighth, quarter. These 2 rhythms alone don't work together, not even if the aim is for syncopation. Instead, these rhythms war against each other. Even the dotted half, half melodic rhythm at the beginning while working better, still sounds like 2 warring pianists because of the harmonies

At some point, the modulating polytonality becomes too much and like a tall tower toppling over, it doesn't just fall leaving tonality in it's wake, it instead collapses leaving behind no intact bits of tonality. This is how come, while I hear sections that could be described as polytonal in Mars by Gustav Holst, and the way the piece is written suggests modulating polytonality, the piece isn't actually polytonal, but is instead atonal, is because this rhythmic and harmonic war collapses all involved tonalities into atonality(when the rhythms work together, the harmonies get more unstable, when the harmonies are a more stable combination, the rhythms don't cooperate).

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I don't think that politonality can become atonality. Most polytonal works are separated in voices or parts, and if you hear a part or voice by separate the tonality is still there.

But in atonality no matter what you do, the tonality doesn't exist.

Even in modal music there's some tonality.

I think the real atonality comes when you compse something in serialism, where every note is the same, and none is more important than the others.

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54 minutes ago, Tortualex said:

I don't think that politonality can become atonality. Most polytonal works are separated in voices or parts, and if you hear a part or voice by separate the tonality is still there.

But in atonality no matter what you do, the tonality doesn't exist.

Even in modal music there's some tonality.

I think the real atonality comes when you compse something in serialism, where every note is the same, and none is more important than the others.

 

You're right. There are "opposite" concepts. In politonality there is tonality. In atonality there isn't.

 

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@caters

I suggest o read the part about polytonality by Vincent Persichetti.

What you say above is a mess.

When you talk about stability what do you mean? Each tonality is stable in itself. The whole can be more consonant or more dissonant.

He establishes this order of intervals between two tonalities from more consonant to more dissonant BUT FOR MAJOR TONALITIES, not major plus minor.

On the other hand, he explains that the most resonant (not consonant) interval for bitonality is the tritone.

1680923783_Capturadepantalla2020-01-11alas20_46_32.png.0f643c35c08beb08f0206c223403fbc1.png

667329583_Capturadepantalla2020-01-11alas20_48_16.png.0f8245482295a53cde7d3b8fc08ff9f2.png

 

He talks about combining minor-major or viceversa, too.

And also what intervals are more consonant when there are more than two tonal centers.

It's all in his book.

Edited by Luis Hernández

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