Academic journal article Current Musicology

Becoming Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Becoming Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology

Article excerpt

Morgan, Robert P. 2014. Becoming Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

In my view, there is a real need for the kind of book that Robert Morgan's Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology aspires to be: a succinct, lucid, and sympathetic summary of the most important works of the most important music theorist, one that shows how those works comprise an integrated theoretical program, a "complete, self-enclosed system" (14)-in a word, a Wissenschaft. Needless to say, this is in many circles no longer seen as a fashionable, or even remotely credible, way of doing intellectual history. A backward glance at the last few decades of developments in music studies leaves one with the impression that the project of rational reconstruction died a mostly unmourned death when Dahlhaus died a premature death in 1989. (1) But "Schenkerism," as Narmour dubbed it, has always been a flagrantly, joyfully, and (in large part) self-consciously unfashionable "ism," even (or especially) back when Schenker was figuring out how to be a Schenkerian. And, in the case of a temporally and culturally remote, sometimes willfully opaque, unfailingly cantankerous thinker like Schenker, reconstruction-which blends the exegete's task of making a text as comprehensible as possible with the advocate's task of making it as convincing and relevant as possible-is arguably a necessary precondition for anything resembling deconstruction, however important and edifying that hermeneutic occupation may be.

Thus I side with Morgan on a fundamental level, in that I think his book aims at a target worth aiming at. Many in the field will disagree. So be it; I'm happy to submit the opinion as a minority report. On this point, however, I anticipate consensus: Morgan fails to hit his target's bull's-eye. While there is plenty to be learned from Becoming Heinrich Schenker, and while everyone who likes to think about Schenker should read it (faute de mieux), I have reservations about how successfully it prosecutes the goals it sets for itself. In what follows, I will use the three components of the book's title-"Becoming Heinrich Schenker," "Music Theory," and "Ideology"-to orient my criticisms and substantiate this verdict.

"Becoming Heinrich Schenker"

Curiously, Becoming Heinrich Schenker has little to do with how Heinrich Schenker became Heinrich Schenker. Aside from a thumbnail sketch in the first chapter, the book contains little biographical material. A more appropriate title for Becoming Heinrich Schenker would have been Becoming Free Composition, the better to reflect two facts: 1) that the text is essentially a chronological book report on Schenker's best-known writings ("The Spirit of Musical Technique," Harmony, Counterpoint vols. 1 and 2, Schenker's monographs and explanatory editions, The Will of the Tones, The Masterwork in Music, and Free Composition); and 2) that the overarching thesis of this Literaturubersicht is a teleological one, to the effect that everything prior to Free Composition "can be beneficially viewed as evolving toward the final theory" (xiv), since "Schenker's evolution can be understood as basically consistent and unidirectional" as it "moves toward the final theory" (xviii). (2) In a refinement of this thesis, we are told that Schenker's early ideas and his final theory are non-equivalent but genealogically connected: "I do not myself feel that a direct line can be drawn between all the ideas expressed in Schenker's early works and those in the later ones, nor that they are in any way equivalent. But I do feel that some concepts expressed in the early works anticipate later ones in a way that seems both powerful and inevitable. It is not, then, that the earlier works completely predict the subsequent ones, but that some ideas introduced there can be viewed as both related to later ones and providing them a sort of prior foundation" (xviii). The book's objectives, accordingly, are to 1) provide some historical background and a resume of "Schenker's final theory" (Chapters 1-2); 2) selectively interpret passages of Schenker's pre-Free Composition publications by viewing them through the lens of the final theory (Chapters 3-7); and 3) evaluate the merits of Schenker's final theory (Chapters 8-10). …

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