9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


L’Uso Moderno: Tonal Coherence in Seventeenth-Century Italian Polyphony

Warren Stewart

Several scholars have recently described a consistent pattern in the eightfold systems of “tones” presented in Italian theoretical works throughout the seventeenth century. The evidence of tonally-ordered collections and the explicit assertions of the theorists suggest that these octonary tonal systems were not merely theoretical constructs but that they were explicitly intended to reflect contemporary practice. In my paper, I will consider the possibility that these tonal systems were just what their proponents maintained they were: a codification of the "common practice" of seventeenth-century polyphony. These octonary tonal systems provide modern scholars with a powerful tool for the analysis of seventeenth-century music as well as important insights into the way polyphonic music was composed and heard at the time.

The viability of the octonary tonal systems as an agent of tonal coherence in the early seventeenth century was dependent on the fundamental concept of musical space grounded in what Harold Powers has called the “Guidonian diatonic”. I will argue that the interaction of the Guidonian properties and the generally-accepted rules of contrapuntal procedure resulted in practice in aurally distinct tonalities, and that these are the “tones” described by the octonary tonal systems. Further, I will show that the general acceptance of normative compositional procedures embodied in these tonal systems provided composers of the period with a means of organizing large-scale polyphonic works and a framework of expectations to manipulate in their setting of poetic texts, particularly in their choice of cadence structure and location.

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Last updated on 22 March 2000 by Yo Tomita