Art Has Its Reasons

La Poétique, la Mémoire

Change No. 6, 1970, Editions du Seuil (Paris)


“It is equally fatal intellectually to have a system and to have none. One must decide to combine both.”

—F. von Schlegel

Heinrich Schenker claimed that if you did not hear music according to his system, you could not be said to hear it at all. Moreover, his system was not elaborated with much consideration for more traditional ways of looking at, or listening to, music. He swept away as trivial and insignificant not only such notions as “modulation” and “sequence” but even “melody,” the common man’s way of recognizing and appreciating music.1 Schenker’s contempt for the layman is exceeded only by his contempt for all previous theoretical work before his own except that of Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Schenker was the musical heir of the great Romantic literary critics of the early nineteenth century, like Friedrich von Schlegel, who conceived the task of the critic as being to convey the unity of the work of art. At the time of his death in Vienna in 1935 at the age of seventy-eight, he was ignored by most of the world of music except for a small group of distinguished pupils and admirers. Before Schenker, the analysis of a musical work was largely an articulation of its parts. Even today the most common method is still to identify the succession of themes and to note which ones appear more than once. A more technical analysis may articulate the harmonic scheme, listing the different keys to which the music moves and their relation to the main key of the piece (the tonic).

Schenker tried instead to show not how the piece may be divided up, but how it held together. A beginning was made toward this end in music criticism as early as E. T. A. Hoffmann, who observed how a work of Beethoven seemed to derive from a single motif, and traced this technique of composition back to Haydn and Mozart. For later nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics, however, analysis of motifs became only a new way of atomizing a work of music, and matters remained at this relatively primitive level until Schenker revived Romantic aesthetics and combined it with an anticipation of certain aspects of structuralism.

Schenker’s analyses contain the most important and illuminating observations made in this century about the music written between 1700 and 1880. Until now only the earliest and weakest of his books, a treatise on harmony, was available in English. A translation of the central theoretical work, Der Freie Satz, has never been published, nor are there any English versions of his analyses of Beethoven’s Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies and the last piano sonatas.

For this reason two recent publications are welcome: the Five Graphic Music Analyses and, in Music Forum, Vol. II, a discussion of the Saraband of Bach’s C Major Cello Suite, one of the essays (and by no means the most significant one) from the volumes called Der Meisterwerk in der Musik.2 The Five Graphic…

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