Friday 28 November 2014

There is sweet music - in praise of polytonality

Act 1 finale from Don Giovanni at Covent Garden - picture ROH
Act 1 finale from Don Giovanni at Covent Garden - picture ROH
If I say the word polytonality - music in more than one key simultaneously - what does it conjure up? A cacophanous racket or music of profound beauty. A throw-away comment on BBC Radio 3 this week set me thinking. The announcer introduced a piece and their reference to the music's polytonal nature implied that polytonality was going to be a bit grim. But that is not the case, it does not have to be and in fact music in more than one key can be ravishing.

The first thing to be said is that you can only have polytonal music if you have tonal music. The music can only be in two or more keys, if the keys exist as clear entities in the music. You only get that frisson when you have already firmly established the key centres. Mozart used polytonal music in Don Giovanni in the ball scene at the end of Act one, but here he was writing for a particular dramatic purpose, with three different orchestras, keys and rhythms representing the three very different dramatic groups on stage. And very effective it is too, but it would not have occurred to him to explore polytonality in his symphonies say.

The music that composers write has a strong social element, they write within the social confines of the day. Those that break out tend to be the quirky ones, such as Berlioz, who don't fit in and the great composers are often those who were able to push and stretch the socio-dramatic rules. Charles Ives, for instance, was highly influenced by hearing two marching bands playing simultaneously, and was evidently introduced to the concept of polytonality by his father (singing a melody in one key and harmonising it in another!) . As a result he explored polytonality and more in his music, whist doing nothing which was not implicit already in 19th century music. But his contemporaries, like Mozart and his contemporaries, could often only hear cacophony where Ives hear a fascinating confluence of sounds. Some of Ives's early choral pieces, psalm settings, explore these issues and I often wonder what his church choir thought when presented with them?
But moving a bit closer to our own day, the composer Darius Milhaud (1892 - 1974) made a concerted study of what happened when you put two different chords on top of each other. He was concerned to get that maximum emotional impact from the music in this way. He seems to have been influenced by Stravinsky who used multiple tonalities for expressive effect in The Rite of Spring and Bartok would also explore the expressive possibilities of two keys.

I have always found polytonality, and in particular bitonality, quite fascinating and a wonderful expressive tool. I wrote a large scale choral piece, Here be Angels in 1998 for the Crouch End Festival Chorus. This explored the idea of Angels in literature, with the opening movement a description of the seven ranks of Angels in heaven, the middle about Angels dancing on a pin and the last an extract from Milton's Paradise Lost about the rebel Angel army. In my programme note I referred to using bitonal passages, but the reviewer in the Evening Standard assumed that these must be that vividly angry sections in the final movement, whereas I used two choirs in keys a semitone apart in the opening movement to achieve some ravishing choral effects.

I had in fact got this idea from Elgar! Some of his part-songs explore ideas which were clearly buzzing round in his head and which may, or may not take further. His part song Owls (to his own text) is simply astonishing and his part song There is sweet music has the women in one key and the men in another with the results creating something really rather magical.
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