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Stories of Tonality in the Age of François-Joseph Fétis

Stories of Tonality in the Age of François-Joseph Fétis explores the concept of musical tonality through the writings of the Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis (1784–1867), who was singularly responsible for theorizing and popularizing the term in the nineteenth century. Thomas Christensen weaves a rich story in which tonality emerges as a theoretical construct born of anxiety and alterity for Europeans during this time as they learned more about “other” musics and alternative tonal systems. Tonality became a central vortex in which French musicians thought—and argued—about a variety of musical repertoires, be they contemporary European musics of the stage, concert hall, or church, folk songs from the provinces, microtonal scale systems of Arabic and Indian music, or the medieval and Renaissance music whose notational traces were just beginning to be deciphered by scholars. Fétis’s influential writings offer insight into how tonality ingrained itself within nineteenth-century music discourse, and why it has continued to resonate with uncanny prescience throughout the musical upheavals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

368 pages | 77 halftones, and 4 line art | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History: European History

Music: General Music


"This book challenges how we think of one of the most long-standing and contentious principles of music, tonality. Rejecting Rameau’s acoustic notion based on mathematics, the Belgian composer-theorist-historian F.-J. Fétis, inspired by Hegel, at first understood it as a function of the human intellect. Later, fascinated with non-western music, he came to believe that 'tonalities' reflect and express race and culture, their differences resulting from migration, transformation, and progress. Christensen deconstructs the origins of these theories and their implications. Looking to street cries, controversial practices in singing chant, and tonality’s purported capacity to unite mankind, he also interrogates the debates they evoked. Compelling and convincing, these Stories of Tonality offer a new approach to both intellectual history and musical biography."

Jann Pasler, University of California San Diego

"Although we now credit François-Joseph Fétis with its dissemination, 'Qu’est-ce que la tonalité?' was a question neither Fétis nor anyone else was ever able to answer, not really. Born in a flush of romantic idealism, the concept committed his contemporaries to narratives that wavered between cultural loss and the promise of renewal before falling under the sway of the racial pseudosciences of the nineteenth century and the cultural politics that sustained them. In Thomas Christensen's retelling, those politics emerge more clearly than ever before, and stand as a cautionary tale to those who, like Fétis, would dream of music's history."

Brian Hyer, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Christensen's study if a valuable one for understanding a complex subject."

Revue de Musicologie (Translated from French)

"Thomas Christensen’s wide-ranging and erudite book is the first sustained attempt in English to grapple with Fétis’s complex music-theoretical legacy... In so doing, he offers an extraordinary panorama of French musical culture and musical thought over the long nineteenth century."

Music and Letters

Table of Contents

1. Tonal Imaginations
2. Chant
3. Origins
4. Song
5. Orienting Tonality
6. Theory
7. Tonal Futures

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