Fétis and the Tonal Imagination: French Discourses of Musical Tonality in the Nineteenth Century


ACLS Fellowship Program




This research project focuses upon the concept of musical tonality viewed through the writings of the Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1867), who was singularly responsible for theorizing and popularizing the concept in the middle-third of the nineteenth century. In Fétis’s influential theory, “tonalité” was far more than a technical term to describe varying scale systems and modes; it became a critical marker of difference among musical styles—both historical and ethnic—that were then beginning to be studied by scholars. At the same time, it proved to be an indispensable signifier by which some French composers toward the end of the nineteenth century might define (and even insulate) their own national musical voice in the face of infectious strains of musical Wagnerism.