Obituary: David Lewin ; Exponent of `Transformational Analysis' in Music Theory

Article excerpt

DAVID LEWIN was one of the most formidable intellects in American musical scholarship. What made Lewin's writings and teaching outstanding, and powerfully communicative, was his openness of mind, his unwillingness to respect established boundaries that might obscure the path to discovery.

Lewin's academic and musical pedigree was impressive. He grew up in New York City where, from the age of 12, he spent five years studying piano, harmony and composition with the Polish-American pianist and composer Edward Steuermann, which made him a "grandpupil" of Busoni, Schoenberg and Humperdinck. He graduated BA in mathematics, summa cum laude, from Harvard in 1954.

Then, after a year in Vienna studying with Josef Polnauer (another Schoenberg alumnus), he went on to lessons in theory and composition at Princeton with a stellar series of teachers: Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt (who later declared Lewin a genius), Earl Kim and Edward Cone. He took a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1958, spending the next three years as a Junior Fellow at Harvard.

David Lewin's own teaching career began at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961. He relocated to the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1967 and remained there until 1980, his last year overlapping with a six-year appointment at Yale; he held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983-84. From 1985 until his death he taught at Harvard, as the Walter W. Naumburg professor of music.

Lewin was a frequent contributor to the scholarly journals - among them the Journal of Music Theory, Perspectives of New Music, Music Perception and Nineteenth-Century Music - and he wrote two highly influential books on transformational theory and analysis, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations (1987) and Musical Form and Transformation: 4 analytic essays (1993). The first soon became required reading in analysis classes across America; the second won the Ascap-Deems Taylor Award.

The especial value of Lewin's approach was its inclusiveness. The tendency had been to regard tonal and atonal music as mutually exclusive, at least as far as analysis was concerned. Lewin's enthusiasms included Brahms (he was one of the founders of the American Brahms Society), Bach, Mozart, Rameau, Debussy and Wagner as well as his "grandteacher" Schoenberg, and so he looked for a more inclusive approach. Lewin's erstwhile student Edward Gollin explains transformational analysis as

an innovative approach to looking at the structure and organisation of a musical work contextually, one that places emphasis not only upon the "things" that make up a composition, but also upon the relationships between and among those things. The attention paid to the relationships, or transformations, between the elements of musical works offered a view of musical structure that crossed structural domains (not just pitch, but duration, rhythm, timbre, etc), crossed historical genres and categories (tonal as well as pre- and post-tonal music), and allowed Lewin to present a dynamic view of musical structure - one that captured the experience of the music from the perspective of performer and careful listener. …