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    First use of the word "atonal"

    edited November 2014 in Questions

    Here's a bit of trivia I hope someone can help with. A student of mine is working on master's thesis which, among many things, is engaging with music in the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (the sequel to the Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr.). In that first film, there is a scene in which Sherlock is performing an experiment with his violin. He explains to Watson that "atonal clusters," rather than a chromatic scale, causes flies to move in a certain direction. The film takes place in or around the year 1881, which predates the earliest reference to the word "atonal" I can find, which comes from a 1907 thesis written by composer Joseph Marx.

    So my question: Does anyone know of an earlier use of the English word "atonal," or do we have to assume that Sherlock was not only a great detective, but also an amateur musicologist.

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    • I don't think the word "atonal" had any musical currency before the 1910s. Most early references are from the 20s. Schoenberg's famous rebuke of the term "atonality" as it applied to his music occured in the 1930s. 

      You do, however, find reference to music without tonality in the nineteenth century. Liszt's Bagatelle ohne Tonart, for example, was written in the 1880s. Perhaps Holmes was referring to Fétis's ordre omnitonique, which dates I think from the 1830s. According to Fétis, omnitonic music consists of chords that touch on any key, and can be resolved to any major or minor key without existing in any one of them. Not quite atonal, but close. Notably, Liszt attended Fétis public lectures in 1832, sent him fan mail(!), and is a good example of a composer whose experimental music bears the influence of music theory.

      If we were being charitable, perhaps we could hypothesize that Holmes was aware of this experimental music, and the film's directors—recognizing the currency of the modern term "atonal"—substituted it for the kind of language (ohne Tonart, sans tonalité) you would find in the 1880s.