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

By Anson-Cartwright, Mark | Intersections, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

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


Anson-Cartwright, Mark, Intersections


Nicholas Cook. 2007. The Schenker Project: Culture, Race, and Music Theory in Fin-de-siècle Vienna. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0-19517056-6 (hardcover), 978-0-19-974429-9 (paper)

Not so many years ago, few scholars would have said that Heinrich Schenker's theory concerned anything but the structure of tonal music. In this provocative and wide-ranging book, however, Nicholas Cook makes precisely this point: he claims that Schenker's life's work was "not just a theory of music but a theory of society - or to put it another way, not just a theory but a project" (14). Most of the book deals with aspects of Schenker's theory that are generally regarded as distinct from music, including philosophy, politics, and race. Cook is suspicious of such distinctions- especially between music and society- and he passionately defends the notion that music is "one of the dimensions within which social relations are performed" (317).

Despite his focus on social and political issues, Cook is also interested in certain nuts-and-bolts aspects of the theory, and the way scholars use or modify it in their own analytical work. Cook presupposes his readers already know a good deal about the theory and its evolution over a period of more than thirty years. At the end of the book, Cook endorses a pluralist- as opposed to monist or orthodox- Schenkerian practice, one that requires "rethinking the Ursatzdominated synthesis of Der freie Satz" (296). While the idea of rethinking or revising Schenker's theory is hardly new, the conceptual framework within which Cook proposes to broaden the practice is both novel and radical.

Cook's main source is Schenker himself. He quotes widely and richly from Schenker's publications, as well as from private documents such as diaries and letters. He uncovers, interprets, and contextualizes all manner of statements made by Schenker- with particular emphasis on Schenker's notorious pronouncements about the superiority of the German "race." Cook balances his narrative with numerous observations about the reception of Schenker's ideas, especially in America, where his following has always been strongest.

In my view, there are at two broad categories of people who conduct Schenker-related research: (1) those who primarily "do" Schenkerian analysis and who are usually called "Schenkerians"; and (2) those who mainly write about Schenker's theory from a historical or philosophical standpoint, but rarely (if at all) use his approach as a tool for analytical research. Admittedly, some scholars do both activities, applying their practical knowledge, for example, to the interpretation and/or evaluation of Schenker's unpublished sketches. Cook explicitly aligns himself with the second group, represented by (among others) Joseph Lubben and Robert Snarrenberg (251). Regardless of Cook's allegiance, there is no denying that he has a firm command of his subject, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Schenkerian literature. For this reason and others I believe this book deserves serious consideration and repeated study, though I am sure many Schenkerians will bridle at Cook's thesis.

The book is organized topically into five chapters framed by an introduction and a conclusion. In the introduction, we are offered a convenient and richly informative biographical sketch, although, as Cook states, the book "is not a biography of Schenker" (15). Cook proceeds chronologically at first, but then takes a step back, so to speak, in chapter 4, to examine a topic that was left intentionally undeveloped in the first three chapters: "Schenker's situation as a Jew from the eastern empire, an Ostjude, in a city where a newly virulent form of anti-semitism was developing" (199). Before examining this crucial chapter, I shall summarize the first three chapters.

Chapter 1 ("Foundations of the Schenker Project") focuses on Schenker's thinking during the 1890s, when he was active mainly not as a theorist but as a performer, composer, and critic.

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