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    Printed discussions of performing Schenkerian graphs?

    Dear colleagues,

    I have been wondering recently about the tradition of playing/performing Schenkerian graphs at the piano. It's an idea I've heard about several times, and one I associate with the direct students or 'grand-students' of Schenker. However, I can't recall ever having seen it discussed explicitly in print. Can anyone recall references to playing Schenker graphs in published articles or books?

    [Incidentally, what brought this most recently to mind is the fact that Lewin insists repeatedly throughout his Morgengruß essay that his readers should be sure to play through his reductions. He's not speaking from a Schenkerian perspective -- and in fact distances himself from it -- but it got me wondering about what the state of Schenker pedagogy looked like in 1970s and 80s, and if it's documented in print anywhere.]

    Thanks in advance,

    Bill O'Hara

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    • Hi Bill,

      I believe I quoted Carl Schachter stating that Felix Salzer used to recommend this in (of all places) my undergrad honors thesis on theory pedagogy. I can see if I can dig up a copy.

      Then, thinking about "performance" more abstractly, William Benjamin describes the foreground as a "performance" (i.e., a realization) of the background in his article "Schenker's Theory and the Future of Music."






    • Hello again,

      I’ve checked my notes, and it turns out I was slightly off. Carl did tell me that Salzer had recommended playing graphs at the piano. As far as documentation of this idea, he pointed me to a comment in Structural Hearing, p. 144.

      The other author who comes to mind is Steven Larson, he writes about the importance of playing through (not just looking at or thinking about) durational reductions: “My advocacy of durational reductions as useful practical tools stems from the recognition that just looking at a voice-leading graph is a passive experience whose impact, though substantial, pales in comparison to the active experience of playing and singing a durational reduction.” This quote is from his article “On Analysis and Performance: The Contribution of Durational Reduction to the Performance of J. S. Bach’s Two-Part Invention in C Major,” In Theory Only 7, no. 1 (May 1983): 31.



    • Just to tack onto Ed's citation of Steve Larson: Larson actually published his own performance of his sketches of a Hanging Gardens song on a cassette that accompanied PNM in 1987. I believe his wife sang the (reductions of) the vocal line using solfege. (I have digitized versions of the recordings if you're interested.)

      Larson, Steve. “A Tonal Model of an ‘Atonal’ Piece: Schönberg’s Opus 15, Number 2.” Perspectives of New Music 25, no. 2 (1987): 418–33.

    • In class, at least during the 70's and 80's, Carl would often play through his graphs. And Eric Wen usually plays through them during his many presentations.


    • The practice of "playing through analyses"  is indeed something that is well known among Schenker’s grand-students. As William O’Hara suggests, this strategy is perhaps too rarely discussed in print. However, I do mention this strategy in my review of Carl Schachter’s Art of Tonal Analysis in MTO.  As I hint in this review, all of the analyses and examples printed in Schachter’s book are to be understood as something that Schachter would have played on the piano. Indeed, sometimes he would just play the analysis on the piano and not bother to write out the graph.

      I also mention practice of playing through analyses in some of my other articles, such as my article on the “Tempes”t Sonata in Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata  (2009) ed. Pieter Bergé, Jeroen d’Hoe, and William Caplin (Leuven: Leuven U. Press)  And although I cite myself here, I am certainly not alone in this regard: I have heard many others of Schenker’s grand-students mention that they play through their analyses as well.

      I should note that although this practice is often framed as "playing through one’s graph on the piano," this wording perhaps is a backward way of looking at things, in the same manner that it is somewhat backward to say that one interprets a printed score by performing it (rather than thinking that composition has an abstract ontological essence that is realized by various possible performances whose sum total is somewhat crudely conveyed by a printed score). That is, a Schenkerian analysis might be understood as an abstract conceptual model that one can attempt to perform by singing or playing the model on a keyboard or other instrument, and a Schenkerian sketch in turn can be understood as a rough attempt to visually depict this performance. This is probably why Schachter did not bother to write out all of his analyses during his classes: if he played his analysis on the piano, a student who was prepared should be able to follow his reading without necessarily needing the visual aid of the graph.









      Poundie Burstein


    • In my MTS article 31/2 (2009), p291n11, I briefly describe Arthur Komar's reminiscence about Milton Babbitt holding the pedal down while playing the WTC C-major prelude. Not sure it exactly fits what you're looking for, but it's a curiosity that links to Lewin -- Komar was visiting the class at Lewin's invitation.

    • I often told my students that the best way to ascertain the quality of their Schenkerian graphs was to verify whether playing them was musically satisfying and whether it reminded of the piece in its details. I added that the quality of their analysis could be verified if they where able to remind the piece through playing more and more distant graphs, possibly helping themselves by the memory of the intermediate graphs.

      It is true that the same result could have been obtained reading the graphs, but I was not sure that my students were that good at hearing what they read – especially reading something as abstract as a Schenkerian graph. Also, when discussing alternative graphs for the same piece or the same passage, we often confronted them in playing, their musical quality being the final argument to choose one above the others.