Atonality: A Musical Fairytale

Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed.

One day the Emperor went in procession through the city, dressed in a splendid array of garments and finery, resplendent under his royal canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!”

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” said a stern looking man called Arnold Schoenberg.

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said the Emperor. And one person whispered to another what Arnold had said, “He hasn’t anything on. Arnie said he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor was very confused, because he was pretty sure he was wearing clothes. “Nope. These clothes are here, exactly where they should be: on my body.”

“Clothes have failed!” cried Arnold. “Being clothes-less will now be the supreme form of expression for the next thousand years!”

The town was whipped into a frenzy. “On whose authority are we to believe this?” cried the town.

“It’s just historically inevitable or something,” said Arnold.

The whole town cried out in fervent agreement. “Historically inevitable! That’s what Arnold said!”

“What is he talking about?” said the Emperor. “Everybody is wearing clothes. We’d all get cold if we didn’t wear clothes. How is this even going to work?”

“I’ve figured it out,” said Arnold. “Clothes are finished, so now you have to carry around a little passport that I will issue to all the good people. Anyone who wants to wear clothes or not use my passport is clearly worthless.”

The Emperor was puzzled. “But Arnie, you’ve just taken your shirt off. You are still wearing that eighteenth century jacket and seventeenth century trousers. I can see them right now.”

“What an old fuddy duddy!” said Arnie. “Look how old fashioned he is! Anyone who doesn’t want to be respected better do what I say. You wouldn’t want to appear old fashioned now, would you?”

Everybody sent out a hurrah of agreement. “We hate old-fashioned things!  That’s what Arnold said!” The Emperor was doubly confused because everyone basically kept all their clothes on anyway. It was freezing outside.

“But wait a second, everyone here is still wearing clothes,” said the Emperor. “Clothes are still extremely practical and convenient and they still contain the potential for an endless variety of stylistic invention the likes of which humanity can not even imagine. There is no need to abandon clothes at all.”

A young man called Pierre Boulez stepped forward.

“I can prove that clothes are not necessary, even Arnold’s gauche jacket,” he said. “Here: look at this photo of me not wearing any clothes in 1952.”

The Emperor glanced at the photo. “Well, great, but you’re wearing clothes right now, so clearly that didn’t work out.”

“I said, look at this photo.”

“But Pierre…”

“I think we should blow up your house.”

And so the Emperor, deeply confused, left his kingdom of Darmstadt never to return. He travelled the world, and found that everybody outside his tiny homeland welcomed him with open arms. Everywhere he went, people thought he had a lot of amazing clothes, though they liked some more than others, and everybody was taking inspiration from each others’ clothes in order to make more clothes in as many inventive and different ways as possible but all the while wearing clothes because that was practical and hygienic and prevented them from freezing to death.

Though the Emperor often asked for news from his homeland, he was always disappointed with what he heard. Every few years a new leader would appear, and they would each insist “there are no clothes!” Upon hearing this news, the Emperor would always became very sad. “But there are,” he would say. “Even a child could see that.”

5 thoughts on “Atonality: A Musical Fairytale

  • November 3, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    your metaphor is very unclear. in which sense are atonality and nakedness related?

    • November 3, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      Thanks for your question.
      Clothes represents harmony
      Nakedness represents a lack of harmony.
      Of course, there’s nothing wrong with atonality or nakedness, and I hope the post makes it clear that I think composers should feel happy to wrote however they want. The real subject of the satire is the idea that a small band of composers managed to convince everyone that tonality was “dead” and that the only way forward was a systemised type of atonality. Tonality never died, and there is no limit to the inventiveness with which composers may use tonality. The idea that serialism was “historically inevitable” as some type of necessary progression from tonality is simply not true- it never was and never will be.

      • November 3, 2015 at 4:53 pm

        your way of looking at it is a bit strange to me.
        – first atonality doesnt mean absence of harmony: Reopen Berg violin concerto, i think it s clearly vertically thought, and it s actually beautiful harmony.
        – schönberg said things, boulez as well, about absolute necessity etc. but why do you consider it as so important? yes they considered themselves as messiahs, but not more not less than others who said the contrary. they never spoke to any “emperor”, their position was important for them, some of their students (not Cage though), and if they succeeded in convincing some other people that they were right, that doesn t mean that everybody had to take it seriously. that s where your satire is a bit questionable: you present Schönberg as talking to the whole population, when he was confidential. (it s clear that most of the music in the world didn t become 12 tone oriented after Schönberg !). One must wait the after ww2 to see young composer follow him more or less faithfully. but still then they didn t convince “everybody that tonality is dead”… by no mean…
        so on the one hand you emphasize his (schönberg) supposed importance, to deny it at the same time.
        or did i misunderstand you ?

        • November 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm

          You and I both think Schoenberg and serialism was not that important, but many, many people bought his propaganda completely, particularly in the 50’s-70’s when it became an ideological war. It seems to have died down now, but the legacy remains- you can still find people saying things like “atonality triumphed over tonality” or that serialism was “inevitable”.

          My whole point is that his “importance” was, rather like the non-existent garment in Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, a deceit and a fallacy, but it was one that many people were afraid to argue against for fear of appearing conservative.
          I know composers who genuinely say things like “I wish I could like Shostakovich.” There is still a fear of not appearing relevant enough if you don’t buy into the “historical inevitability” of atonality.

          Also, I don’t really see Berg as atonal- his voice-leading and harmonic architecture seems very tonally conceived, as you also say.

          • November 3, 2015 at 5:29 pm

            actually, i didn t say that berg seems very tonally conceived, but it was atonal and beautifully harmonic at the same time. there is harmony in atonality, in my perspective.
            however, who wanted to be conservative in 1950? was it possible to say “oh no for me music is “Jeux de Cartes” and Darius Milhaud”? no, for very good reasons, right? (not that this music is beautiful or not, but because it was so much the symbol of the 30s, of what let the ww2 happening…)
            So maybe this whole thing (which i still think is important musically speaking – the quality of boulez, stock., feldman, etc.–), as well as the juicy “i wish i could like Shostakovich” only reflects our difficulty to face or reflect the passage of the war in music… for some people it meant (you know adorno´s song…) be radical and repent!… but now?
            …and also, lat but not least, thank you for enlighting, “exegeting” even your delicious tale.

Comments are closed.