The Schenker Project: Culture, Race, and Music Theory in Fin-De-Siècle Vienna

By Weiner, Brien | Notes, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Schenker Project: Culture, Race, and Music Theory in Fin-De-Siècle Vienna


Weiner, Brien, Notes


The Schenker Project: Culture, Race, and Music Theory in Fin-de-siècle Vienna. By Nicholas Cook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. [xi, 355 p. ISBN-13: 9780195170566. $65.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliographic references, index.

"If Schenker's theory was the solution, then what was the problem?" So begins Nicholas Cook's The Schenker Project, in which he attempts to place Heinrich Schenker's music-theoretical writings in the social, cultural, and political context of fin-de-siècle Vienna, in order to gain insight into the way we read Schenker today. This context includes music criticism, architectural modernism, German cultural conservatism, and Schenker's position as a Jewish immigrant to Vienna. For Schenker, music and society were inextricably linked. Such a study is long overdue and enables us tobetter understand how Schenker's polemics were integrated into his concept of musical coherence in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western art music, and to come to terms with contradictions in his theory. Ultimately, the book contributes to the recent debate over whether Der freie Satz represents the summation or an aberration of Schenker's theory, or whether it is merely a collection of practices and not a theory at all. Cook issues the caveat, however, that "any story of the development of Schenker's theoretical thought is less a reflection of the facts of the matter than a decision as to what the facts are" (p. 27).

Cook's narrative of Schenker's history is engaging and informative, and his observations are compelling and provocative. He provides a wealth of biographical and interdisciplinary information, a comprehensive critique of primary and secondary literature, and a translation of Schenker's essay Der Geist der musikalischen Technik (The Spirit of Musical Technique) by William Pastille. The Schenker Project will be of interest to students and scholars of music theory and is recommended for any library supporting the study of Schenkerian analysis.

In chapter 1, "Foundations of the Schenker Project," Cook discusses Schenker's writings in terms of philosophy, formalism, and musical logic. Here Cook explains how the philosophical Geist essay anticipates Schenker's life's work. Schenker attacks traditional music theory for being unrelated to practice, and he distinguishes the subjectivity of the composer from the objectivity of the music as a self-organizing structure, hence the concepts of organicism and genius. Although the Schenker project was motivated by many aesthetic, conceptual, and historical factors, Cook argues that it was an attempt to redefine the German in music, and thereby take music back from anti-Semitic Wagnerians to the time of the Viennese classicists, a tradition common to both Jew and gentile.

Chapter 2, "The Reluctant Modernist," explores the development of Schenker's views on composition, performance, listening, writing, and teaching (the scope of the Schenker project) from the Geist essay to his later work. Cook focuses first on Ein Beitrag zur Ornamentik, in which Schenker asserts that technique must arise from musical content, and that expressiveness is an objective property of the music; Schenker disparages virtuosos for imposing their mechanical fingering on the music. By extension, Schenker's views on ornamentation reflect his criticism of fin-de-siècle culture in general, and his aim for reform. Cook then examines the relationship of Schenker's writings to modernist art and architecture in Vienna. Such an interdisciplinary approach, which aids our understanding of the environment in which Schenker worked, has been largely ignored in present-day Schenkerian studies. Throughout his book, Cook is careful to distinguish direct influences from common intellectual currency. Although Schenker condemns the "modernity" of the composers of his day, Cook maintains that his theory does not restore but reinvents the classics, and thus Schenker can be described as a reluctant modernist.

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