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The Meaning[s] of "Without": An Exploration of Liszt's Bagatelle ohne Tonart

David Berry
19th-Century Music
Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring 2004), pp. 230-262
DOI: 10.1525/ncm.2004.27.3.230
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncm.2004.27.3.230
Page Count: 33
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The Meaning[s] of "Without": An Exploration of Liszt's Bagatelle ohne Tonart
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Abstract

In this essay, I explore historical and theoretical issues germane to an understanding of an 1885 piano composition with an intriguing title: LisztÕs Bagatelle ohne Tonart--a bagatelle "without tonality" or "without a key." After briefly describing the workÕs history and musical associations with other compositions by Liszt, I survey two present-day approaches that reveal ways in which the work defies tonality: octatonic interpretations via set-class examinations, and Schenker-influenced prolongational models. I then turn to focus instead on how the Bagatelle fit within the framework of nineteenth-century musical thought; how its processes were supported by contemporaneously evolving theories of chromaticism. Partly through an analysis based on the practice of Gottfried Weber (1779-1839), I demonstrate that the Bagatelle is not a piece "without tonality" as much as it is one "without the fulfillment of the tonic." It maintains harmonic tension by avoiding anticipated resolutions, as well as by preserving a sense of ambiguity as to what the actual "missing" key is.Next, I consider why Liszt was prompted to write a piece in such a manner. We know that he was a proponent of musical progress--of Zukunftsmusik ("music of the future")--but for this fact to be relevant we must confirm, first, that Liszt had definite ideas about a Zukunftsharmoniesystem; and second, that such a system is reflected in the processes exhibited by the Bagatelle. I argue that the BagatelleÕs traits are indeed in accordance with theoretical views about musicÕs future direction, to which Liszt subscribed. Relevant theories of Karl Friedrich Weitzmann (1808-80) and Fran ois-Joseph FŽtis (1784-1871) are assessed. Lastly, in a "Schoenbergian epilogue" I explore connections between LisztÕs operations and SchoenbergÕs ideas, addressing historical associations that conjoin their views of composing "ohne Tonart."I conclude that the 1885 BagatelleÕs attenuation of tonality was part of a tradition that extended from the mid-nineteenth into the early twentieth century--one that stretched from Liszt and his contemporaries through Schoenberg and his pupils and beyond, embracing along the way the theoretical prescriptions of Weitzmann, FŽtis, and Schoenberg himself. The various threads of theory and analysis explored in this article contribute to an understanding of the same strand of musical evolution: the increasing circumvention of tonality to the point that a piece could be written "ohne Tonart."

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