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                                          The Use of Tonic Delay
                       in the Context of Extreme Chromaticism

Since its creation in 1859, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and especially its Prelude, has been considered one of the most harmonically revolutionary works in the history of European classical music.  Perhaps the most astounding fact about the construction of the oft-studied Prelude is that, despite a key signature of no flats or sharps and the harmonic intimations of an A minor tonic, there is not one cadence in Am, nor are there any Am tonic chords in the entire piece.  The Prelude is filled with deceptive cadences that promise a resolution to the tonic but never deliver––a harmonic scheme based on the unresolved tensions in the plot. This may well be the first example in the canon of Western diatonic music in which there is a total absence of the tonic. This work contains so many wonderful compositional games and harmonic tricks that, since its creation, it has tempted untold numbers of theorists to try to explain its inner workings. From the first three notes in the cellos to the famous Tristan Chord that follows them, things are not what they appear to be. The passing A on the last beat of m. 2 changes the sonority and function of the Tristan Chord (now B7b5/F) and takes us to the dominant of a key that is a tritone distant from the Ebm implied by the initial Fø supertonic. The stage has been set for the development of tritone relationships and unstable harmonic functions as the compositional process unfolds within a context of extreme chromaticism. The significance of this relationship is finally realized by the arrival on the supertonic Fø at the Prelude’s climax in Ebm and the sudden reversal back to Am by means of the same harmonic trick we heard at the beginning.

As one marvels at Wagner’s daring harmonic innovations in Tristan, the question invariably arises, “Are there any precedents in the literature that might make these innovations, especially tonic delay, seem more evolutionary than revolutionary?” One good candidate is Prelude No. 2 in Am from Frederic Chopin’s Opus 28 published a full twenty years before the completion of Tristan. In this very special miniature the tonic, again Am, appears only in the final measure. If we go back more than half a century before the completion of Chopin’s Preludes we find an excellent candidate, the Fantasia in C minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in which the first root-position tonic only appears after 96% of this lengthy piece has been performed. It is significant that the delay or avoidance of syntactical progressions in the tonic in all three of these pieces occurs in the context of extreme chromaticism. It would be almost impossible to imagine a strictly diatonic or prescribed formal context, such as sonata-allegro form, in which this might occur successfully.  Since a great deal has already been written about the Tristan Prelude, including my own attempt to explain the unexplainable, this paper will focus mainly on the harmonic game plans of Mozart’s Fantasia and the four Chopin Preludes that employ tonic delay. 

Tonic Delay

Tonic delay refers to the postponement of the confirmation of the central key of a tonal composition. More specifically, it is the result of the composer’s deliberate avoidance of strong syntactical progressions and cadences in the tonic early in the musical structure. This runs contrary to the usual practice of providing the listener a tonal orientation to the central key by means of the three harmonic functions (tonic, subdominant, and dominant) at or near the opening.  This is part and parcel of the general orientation-disorientation-reorientation process used in myriad pieces in the common practice period. Therefore, any use of tonic delay may be seen as a well-organized attempt to supplant harmonic structures that are clearly based on the principles of tonality with those that seem ready to postpone, avoid, or obscure affirmations of key. The impression left with the listener is that pieces that employ tonic delay are the product of right brain activity rather than the left-brain endeavors that made the exercise of tonality in much of the music of the Baroque and Classic Periods seem so secure and logical. Tonic delay is one of the compositional strategies that some composers in the late 18th and 19th centuries employed in an attempt to apply aspects of the Romantic aesthetic to their creative processes.