A hundred years ago or thereabouts, a fellow named Heinrich Schenker developed a method for analyzing the structure of pieces of classical music. His method, which is known as Schenkerian analysis, is of some academic importance — and that’s a shame, because it’s stupid.

What Schenker did was attempt to describe the structure of pieces of music in harmonic terms by progressively stripping away all of the surface features, until what was left was, in every case — big surprise! — a I-V-I progression. The fact that analyzing music in this way removes all of its interesting, memorable, and emotionally affecting features seems not to have bothered Schenker in the least. Nor was he concerned that his methods worked best when applied to German classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, and poorly or not at all when applied to other kinds of music. As far as Schenker was concerned, those other kinds of music were simply inferior because they failed to follow his template, which he was sure was a universal truth.

I’ve been reading a book by Nicholas Cook called A Guide to Musical Analysis. He starts with Schenker, but I’m looking forward to getting past the opening chapter and on to something that may make more sense. (If you think “musical analysis” ought to refer to the study of shows like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, you’re right. The correct term would be “music analysis.” But we’ll give Cook a mulligan on that one.)

Cook is not, I hasten to add, a committed Schenkerian. I got a chuckle out of this passage, on page 54: “…Schenkerian analysis of Schubert’s Moment Musical, Op. 94, No. 1, suggests that the first and last formal sections of this piece — an extended ABA — have quite different harmonic and linear functions, even though the one is the exact repetition of the other. Some critics of Schenkerian analysis have been worried by such discrepancies between surface form and analytical interpretation….”

This passage put me in mind of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’s premise is that Menard, a modern author (whom Borges invented for the purpose) devoted years of effort to writing a couple of chapters of Don Quixote, not by copying it but by a deliberate process of creative inspiration. Far from producing these chapters by accident, Menard set out to duplicate the Quixote, and succeeded.

“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical,” Borges tells us, “but the second is almost infinitely richer.” And on the next page, “The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard — quite foreign, after all — suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.”

Borges was pulling our leg, of course, but he was also making a point about how we interpret texts. In light of that, there may be some justification, however tenuous, for that bizarre Schenkerian analysis of Schubert. Insofar as there’s any justification at all for Schenkerian analysis, which is rather doubtful.

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2 thoughts on “Skeletons

  1. Some of my books seem to have gone missing- somewhere I have a century old text correcting JS Bach’s “mistakes” because V-I is the correct and divine way. .

    Schenker is essentially some redneck telling you that the highest hill in the small world he knows is the tallest mountain in the galaxy, imparting the “wisdom” of his tunnel-vision Weltanschauung.

    I think you know very well that this is an accurate description, albeit brutally put. But are you ready to pay the price of being able to honestly and without self contradiction to shoot that goose down?

    Schenker in the big picture does not amount to much more than some armchair quarterback in a bar. It’s pop music that has taken that same kind of provincial pettiness to the level of global imperialism, proactively. Confronting this- and any musical person with any kind of “left” to them at all must do so- means putting a whole herd of sacred cows out to pasture, and doing so openly means professional suicide.

    1. “I have a century old text correcting JS Bach’s “mistakes” because V-I is the correct and divine way.” I will occasionally change a note or two when I play Bach, but not for that reason! That reminds me, though — one of the cello method books I teach from has a four-movement Vivaldi sonata (Op. 14, No. 5) whose last movement is absolutely unique. In every other binary form movement I’ve ever seen, the first half ends either on the dominant or, if the piece is in the minor, possibly on the relative major. This Vivaldi movement is in E minor, yet the first half ends on the subdominant, A minor!

      Those darn composers will try anything. No respect for the rules. 🙂

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