Heaven's Bells by Ken Myers

Column: From Heavenly Harmony

Heaven's Bells

by Ken Myers

The term "tonality" is used to refer to a harmonic system whereby a sense of home is established in a piece of music on a particular note. Melodies and harmonies within a tonal composition are ordered around that home note and the home key (major or minor) that grows out of it. Think of the tune to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The first note, the one on which Judy Garland sang "Some-", is the home note. The second note, "-where," ascends a full octave, to a note that is vibrating exactly twice as fast as the first note, and thus is a higher version of home. As it happens, that higher home note is also the very last note in the song, as Dorothy wistfully wonders "Why, oh why, can't I?" When she sings that last note, the melody comes back home, even if she and Toto still aren't in Kansas anymore. Music with a tonal center can come home, often repeatedly, and each arrival is usually aesthetically satisfying.

Many Western composers in the twentieth century expressed anxiety, skepticism, or disdain toward the practice of tonality. Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony, composed at the end of the century's first decade, announced (in Leonard Bernstein's words) "the death of tonality." Bernstein hears in the last movement of Mahler's Ninth a prayer "for the restoration of life, of tonality, of faith. . . . But there are no solutions." The twentieth century was the century of death, proclaimed Bernstein in his 1973 Norton Lectures at Harvard, "and Mahler is its musical prophet."

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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