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ChristopherSchlegel

Heinrich Schenker

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Stephen Siek -

I am pursuing a BA in Music. In an advanced theory class I was introduced to the work of Heinrich Schenker.

I was (& still am) amazed at how useful & insightful some of concepts are in analyzing music (i.e.: Ursatz, Urline, prolongation, contrapunctal versus harmonic chord function, etc.). I got several of his works & works related to his (especially Salzer's "Structural Hearing Tonal Coherence in Music") & have been entranced ever since.

The approach he used is limited in some ways to certain styles & composers. But, I have found that it is possible to extrapolate many of the important ideas (especially the hierarchical nature of any tonal piece) & apply them to any piece that is within the bounds of tonality.

In your view, how successful is Schenkerian theory in analyzing music?

Thank you,

Christopher Schlegel

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Stephen Siek -

I am pursuing a BA in Music.  In an advanced theory class I was introduced to the work of Heinrich Schenker.

I was (& still am) amazed at how useful & insightful some of concepts are in analyzing music (i.e.: Ursatz, Urline, prolongation, contrapunctal versus harmonic chord function, etc.).  I got several of his works & works related to his (especially Salzer's "Structural Hearing Tonal Coherence in Music") & have been entranced ever since.

The approach he used is limited in some ways to certain styles & composers.  But, I have found that it is possible to extrapolate many of the important ideas (especially the hierarchical nature of any tonal piece) & apply them to any piece that is within the bounds of tonality.

In your view, how successful is Schenkerian theory in analyzing music?

Thank you,

Christopher Schlegel

Christopher,

It depends entirely on what you mean by “analyze.” I don’t think Schenkerian theory does anything to tie a musical work to the facts of reality, but for that matter I don’t know any theory which does. For the benefit of those reading this who did not attend music school, Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) was an Austrian theorist who, among other achievements, edited all the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, and today, Schenkerian (or “linear graphic”) analysis is immensely influential in academe. Twenty years ago when I was in graduate school, there was a big debate at my conservatory as to whether the entire theory program should become “Schenkerian,” and in fact I can even remember some of the doctoral students being asked this question at their orals. Growing numbers of teachers seem to want to expose students to nothing except Schenkerian analysis even at the earliest levels—which is a mystery to me because I don’t see how anyone can learn basic harmony from Schenker. His system is not so much one of addition, but of continuous subtraction, which in the final stages, reduces every composition to a sparse three chords. Moreover, it’s important to remember that while Schenker offered his system primarily as an aid to performers, there is no way a performer can afford himself the luxury of conveniently sliding from “foreground” to “background” motion as Schenker does. For a performer, everything is necessarily “foreground” in the learning process, but “background”—i.e. relegated to the subconscious—during the actual performance. At the very least, the rather authoritarian manner by which he pronounces some parts of a composition to be more essential than others sends all the wrong signals to a serious performer, because in the learning stages, <i>everything</i> about a composition is essential.

But I have more serious reservations about the deification of “analysis” over the past century, particularly given the lack of an objectively valid theory of musical aesthetics. At the moment, I have no idea what a “perfect” analysis would represent, other than a certain consistency of terminology. I certainly believe that music students should learn harmony and counterpoint, and that harmonic analysis, for example, can be of immense help to performers, composers, and scholars. But Schenkerian analysis expands from harmony into a type of all-inclusive “definitive” understanding—at least in the minds of many people. When I was in school I had a lot of courses in both approaches, and although I can only speak personally, I have to say that today I never use anything I learned in the Schenker courses—but I constantly use what I learned in the more traditional analysis courses. And the older I get, the more suspicious I become of the kind of “analysis” which removes all sensual or timbral elements from a musical work. Years ago, I remember looking at one of Schenker’s diagrams for a Schubert composition I really loved, which he had reduced to three fundamental chords. The emotional reaction I had was not that my understanding of Schubert had been enhanced, but that the composition had been destroyed. I don’t want to suggest that Schenker cannot possibly have any value—I just remain to be convinced that he makes a significant contribution to the understanding of tonal music.

Good luck with your studies!

Stephen Siek

Prof. of Music

Wittenberg University

P.O. Box 720

Springfield, OH 45501

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