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    Schenker's Aesthetic

    (I am familiar with the subject of Schenker analysis, but a newcomer to scholarship about Heinrich Schenker. Perhaps the Schenker scholars on this forum could comment on the following question.)

    What was Schenker's general aesthetic view about music? It seems to be something like this:

        [a]  Musical materials which cannot be related to Ursatz, are of minimal aesthetic value.

    So for instance, Schenker would not consider the following to have much aesthetic value: An "atonal" work; a long drum solo in a jazz performance; Cage 4'33" (!!)

    Is [a] an accurate statement of Schenker's aesthetic? Is there a better formulation?



    Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




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    • 11 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • This is the place to start:








      Bryan J. Parkhurst

      Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Music

      Columbia University


    • Well, yes and no. Riemann has contributed significantly into musical aesthetics. In fact, he and Guido Adler created a university discipline of musical aesthetics. The tonal-functional theory is rooted in philosophy of Hegel and Kant. Riemann mentioned in his Musikalische Syntaxis that S-D-T pattern is borrowed from the anapest (weak-weak-strong), from poetry. There are many other associations and parallels. As for Schenker--he has been a philosopher of a kind and there are text that explicate his philosophical position (texts writted by his followers). It is not very clear, though, who was his role model in phisolophy of his days. I am also interested in finding the answer.

    • Schenker did not speak that often of the relation between text and musical structure, but when he did, mainly in Lieder by Schubert, his terms were quite meaningful. The cases include:

      • Ihr Bild (Schwanengesang): Kontrapunkt I, pp. 82-83 (transl., p. 56); Tonwille 1, pp. 46-49 (transl., vol. I, pp. 41-43).

      • Gretchen am Spinnrade: Tonwille 6, pp. 2-8 (transl., vol. II, pp. 3-7).

      • Am Meere (Schwanengesang): Meisterwerk 1, pp. 199-200 [of the original German; I don't have page numbers for the transl.].

      • Der Schiffer: Free Composition, § 124 (ex. 39.1).

      There are other occasions (and Bob might want to add to my list); but vocal music takes a limited share in Schenker's analyses. The main point, however, is that he is never merely illustrating word painting: the links that he describes are more profound.



    • If one looks solely at Schenker's later published writings, that statement serve as a glib but somewhat accurate assessment.

      But now that so much of Schenker's earlier and unpublished writings are available, it's possible to draw a more nuanced picture of Schenker's aesthetic values (not easily described in a one-sentence statement).  Asides from his earlier reviews (published before 1900), I highly recommend the book "Heinrich Schenker: Selected Correspondence" (edited by Ian Bent, David Brethton & William Drabkin) where you can see him dealing with issues that do not arise in his published writings.




    • To the above may be added that it was only in 1930 that Schenker's term Ursatz took the meaning in which we understand it today. Schenker developed his theories from about 1900 to his death in 1935: the concept of Ursatz, in its full meaning, concerns only the last five years.

      To say that a work relates to its Ursatz boils down to saying that it originates in its tonic triad: I am not sure that this can be considered an aesthetic judgment – at best, it equates saying that the work is tonal. Schenker may have judged that works that ain't tonal ain't music either, but that can hardly be considered an aesthetich judgment.

      The aesthetic judgment begins when one describe how the work relates to its Ursatz. The passage that opens vol. 1 of Das Meisterwerk (1925) [W. Drabkin's translation], quoted in William Pastille's MTO article (§15), probably summarizes Schenker's aesthetic view:

      The natural idea of the triad, the artistic idea of composing out this sonority, the perfection achieved by transforming one sonority into many by means of voice-leading prolongations, the creation of form as a consequence of the Urlinie: all this goes into a masterwork.

      That is to say that starting from the tonic triad, elaborating it by voice-leading lines creating new chords, giving form through the flow of the Urlinie [Formgebung als Ablauf der Urlinie], all this results in a [tonal] masterwork [alles das macht ein Meisterwerk aus]. It is not the Ursatz itself which defines a masterwork, it is its "composing out", its elaboration.




    • If the work in question is vocal (song, choral, opera, ...) , do the words in the work play any role in the Schenkerian evaluation ?


      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • No, not that I know. Schenkerian analysis does not provide global evaluations of the pieces, only of their tonality and how it is built, and this is not dependent on their words.

      Schenkerian theory, like Riemann's functional theory, are theories of tonal music. Neither is dependent on the words sung, and neither claimed general validity. Both can be (and have been) extended to apply to, say, jazz, or even possibly to atonal music; but that is not what their authors did.



    • But in his published writings Schenker illustrated how the text can be intimately linked to a work's musical structure.

    • Does anyone have a reference re Bob Kosovksy's comment?

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • If I were a Schenkerian I would try to link the idea of tonal prolongation to the prolongation of meaning in the song's lyrics. Some songs (and arias) use very few words and one mood for the whole composition. For example, Blute nur, or Wie Melodien, etc. So, the idea of prolongation of the meaning of the initial phrase or sentence on the whole body of a song should support the idea of linear unfolding of a triad. This would have been the beginning of Schenkerian aesthetics.

    • Consider also:

      Rink, John. 1993. "Schenker and Improvisation."  Journal of Music Theory 37 (1):1-54.

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      PhD student in Music Theory at Columbia University