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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 Music Analyses is particularly important, although—since the book contains almost no text at all—it can hardly be said to make a beginning with the task of translating Schenker into English. These reductions of music by Bach, Haydn, and Chopin to skeletal graphs are Schenker’s last works.

In his excellent Introduction Felix Salzer maintains that, although Schenker was a specialist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music, his theory has much to contribute to the understanding of other periods as well. Schenker, however, was no mere specialist in these two centuries, but a firm believer that musical art of any consequence was confined to that period, when a developed and sophisticated form of tonality was the basis of music.

His book on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was dedicated to “Brahms, the last great master of German music.” “German” was an unnecessary qualification for Schenker, who considered the ability to sustain musical expression a proof of membership in the German race, even if one had foreign blood in one’s veins. Chopin, whom Schenker used to illustrate his theories almost as often as Beethoven, would, I presume, be an honorary German. This is like Schlegel’s “They say that the Germans are the greatest people in the world for their sense of art and scientific spirit: no doubt, but there are very few Germans.”

That the music after Brahms did not fit Schenker’s theories was only a proof to him of its inferiority. Stravinsky and Reger are both easily disposed of in this way and outside tonality was the outer darkness into which the degenerate composer was forever consigned.3

In Schenkerian analysis, every work of music is reduced to a simple line which is a step-by-step descent to the central or tonic note, and under each note of the line the harmonic functions are indicated by a bass. This line always outlines one of the intervals of the tonic triad (third, fifth, or octave). (In C Major, for example, the line may descend from E to C or from G to C; the octave descent C to C is rarely encountered.)

The fundamental line constitutes, for Schenker, the structure of every tonal work at the deepest level, and music that cannot be reduced to this structure must be judged incoherent and, indeed, ungrammatical. The “idea” of each work is not, emphatically, this fundamental line, but the elaboration of the line into the rich and individual superstructure that we actually hear. It is implied by all of Schenker’s writings that only genius can arrive at a musical work that is both grammatical and interesting; and within the terms set by Schenker himself, this is an inescapable conclusion.

What Schenker did was to extend the idea of dissonance from the individual moment to the level of the piece as a whole. Dissonance is simply an interval that requires resolution into a consonance, and the only consonances accepted in Western music since the fifteenth century are the intervals of the basic triad (third, perfect fifth, and octave) and the inversion of the third, or the sixth.4 All other intervals are, by convention, dissonant, and demand to be resolved into one of the consonances.

This concept was already extended in the eighteenth century when the chord and not the interval became the basis of harmonic thought. Dissonance now implied resolution into a triad, and the final resolution of every work of music was, of course, into the tonic triad.

The basis of Schenker’s system is that every note of a piece, whatever its immediate function, is considered as dissonant to the notes of this final, tonic cadence (except, naturally, for the notes of the cadence itself). Each note has therefore ultimately to be resolved into the tonic triad. An unresolved note is considered as in suspense, the tension it creates lasting until its resolving note finally appears in a context that emphatically displays its role in the large plan. The context is defined by the harmonic significance at each point of the basic line.

What is most striking about Schenker’s analytical system is his insistence that both listener’ and composer—consciously or unconsciously—have a sense of tonal forces that overrides the immediate, small-scale event and allows them to hear “at a distance” so to speak. For example, the basic phrase (Ursatz) underlying the whole of Chopin’s Etude in F Major, opus 10, no. 8, is:

Resolution at a distance would require enormous space to illustrate properly, and the shortest example will have to suffice. Measures 10 to 15 of the original are represented in the most complex of the series of Schenker’s analytic graphs by:

We can see here not only all the notes of the original resolved into the basic phrase (or its octave doublings), but also the relation of the high G of measure 11 to the high A that occurs four measures later. This is a relationship that a pianist with a sense of line naturally sets in relief, and is a direct part of musical experience. The large-scale resolutions take place according to the strict rules of counterpoint derived from the practice of J. S. Bach.

Schenker assumed that the contrapuntal technique of voice-leading (in which each note is part of an independent vocal or instrumental “horizontal” line in addition to combining into a simultaneous harmony with other notes) was valid not only on the level of the single phrase but underlay the general harmonic structure as well. He found that he could connect what he considered the basic notes at the points of structural importance, and that they formed a series of lines that conformed to the tradition of voice-leading as it had been elaborated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and systematized in the eighteenth.

These lines constitute the most complex of Schenker’s analytic graphs, the Urlinie Tafel. These in turn can be reduced in a series of stages to the simple cadential phrase outlining the tonic triad. This latter phrase is not to be understood as the structure of the work being analyzed, but as the structure of the tonal language.

In other words, for Schenker every tonal work is the elaboration of a simple cadence. Historically this point has much to be said for it (although Schenker’s way of thinking was preeminently anti-historical). The cadence is the determining element in Western music, at least from Gregorian chant until the early twentieth century. Not only classical tonality but the medieval modes are defined by the cadence, and the basic impulsive force of both Renaissance and Baroque music—the harmonic sequence—is generally a repetition of cadential formulas. The cadence is a framing device, and it isolates and defines a piece of Western music as the frame defines a Western painting. Unlike much of the music of Africa and Asia—and much of what is being written today from John Cage to rock—a work of European music from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries is conceived as a determinate isolated event, and the cadence fixes each performance in time.

If a work is essentially a cadence magnificently expanded, then it may be seen as a delaying action, or, in Schenker’s own terms, a tension sustained until the final resolution. What was original in Schenker’s approach was his insistence that the means of sustaining the tension be intimately related in all details to the simple cadence which defines the work. In this way, he was able to explain that sense of unity and integrity of the great works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music. A quartet of Mozart holds all its most violent and dramatic contrasts in one characteristic whole, while a quartet by Dittersdorf—with much more uniform material and texture—falls into a series of separate sections, jolly and tuneful as they may be.

It is a waste of time to ask if this unity that we seem to perceive really exists, or if the composer knew that he created this unity, whether or not he was able to put his awareness into words. These are not, of course, answerable questions even if the composer is on hand to incriminate himself. The unity of a work of art is the oldest critical dogma that we have, and every piece of music demands a perception of its unity in the absolute sense that that is precisely what listening to it means. That is, the unity is neither an attribute of the work nor a subjective impression of the listener. It is a condition of understanding: the work reveals its significance to those who listen as if even its discontinuities correspond to hold it together.

  1. 1

    This point is somewhat obscured by Schenker’s occasional use of the term “melody” to describe the linear working out of his deep structure. But in his article on sonata form, he insists that the layman’s and the theoretician’s general conception of melody, theme, and motive only serve to hide the true musical process.

  2. 2

    Music Forum, II, also contains Lewis Lockwood’s essay on the manuscript of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata, in its intelligence and sympathy the most illuminating description of Beethoven’s method of revising and sketching I have read. This was certainly the most important musicological contribution to the Beethoven year.

  3. 3

    This is not an argument against Salzer’s adaptation of Schenkerian analytical methods to medieval and contemporary music, and his work merits independent consideration.

  4. 4

    The ambiguous historical role of the fourth may illuminate this: theoretically it fluctuated between consonance and dissonance with theorists unable to decide; practically, it was a dissonance after 1400 except when it functioned as an inversion of the fifth.

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