[Smt-talk] Readings

Mark.AnsonCartwright at qc.cuny.edu Mark.AnsonCartwright at qc.cuny.edu
Thu Dec 8 06:16:23 PST 2011

Dear Prof. Väisälä and member of the list:

The combative stance in Dreyfus's Chapter 6 ("Figments of the Organicist 
Imagination") is regrettable. But that, and other weaknesses of his book, 
should not stand in the way of recommendations about what theory 
students--even ones relatively new to the field--might explore in a 
master's seminar.

Scholars of every stripe--theorists, musicologists, linguists, literary 
critics, and so on--should encourage their students to attack problems 
from various angles, and from various disciplines, even if the work they 
read is flawed in some way. (Isn't everybody's work flawed?)

Dreyfus is not perfect, nor should we expect him to be. We examine others' 
attempts (and failures, and partial successes), so that we might assess 
our own capacity to think anew about how music works.

I hope to see continued engagement with these issues in the virtual 
"pages" of this forum. 


Mark Anson-Cartwright
Aaron Copland School of Music
Queens College, CUNY

Mark.AnsonCartwright at qc.cuny.edu

Olli Väisälä <ovaisala at siba.fi> 
12/08/2011 08:36 AM

Mark.AnsonCartwright at qc.cuny.edu
smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Re: [Smt-talk] Readings

Mark Anson-Cartwright wrote

I'd like to recommend a publication that would most readily be  called a 
work of historical musicology, one that engages with  theory in a 
compelling way, namely, Laurence Dreyfus's _Bach and  the Patterns of 
Invention_ (Harvard University Press, 1996). The  first chapter, in 
particular--"What Is an Invention?"--should be  essential reading for any 
student doing analytical work on Bach.

I would like to add that, apart from its merits, Dreyfus's book offers an 
illustrative negative example of a kind of one-sidedness that often mars 
musical discussion. I am referring to authors who, arguing for the musical 
aspect they are concerned with, combine such arguments with the 
unjustified dismissal of  complementary  aspects, which may lie outside 
their expertise. Such arguments seem to manifest excessive confidence that 
their limited purview matches the multidimensional richness of music such 
as Bach's.

Dreyfus's book is characterized by the strong antagonism he sees between 
his  "mechanist" approach and the "organicist" Schenkerian approach and by 
 the concomitant attempts to downplay the significance of harmony and 
voice-leading. While this tendency is most clearly evident in his explicit 
anti-Schenkerian essay in chapter 6, its symptoms are already evident in 
chapter 1.

In ch. 6, Dreyfus argues against the Urlinie concept on the basis  that it 
"seems counterintuitive to imagine that the work that went into the 
invertible permutations was not *the primary* motor behind the deepest 
structure of the  piece [C-minor Fugue from WTC I]" (p. 178, my emphasis). 
This is one of several passages in which Dreyfus seems to fail to consider 
the possibility that  "mechanist" and "organicist" viewpoints might offer 
complementary  illumination for Bach's art (a consideration I think is 
extremely pertinent for its nature). Dreyfus's argument is a bit similar 
as if we tried to dismiss the significance of syntactic construction in a 
poem by arguing that the work that went into the rhyme scheme is 

Chapter 1 includes similar more or less unfruitful attempts to determine 
whether "mechanist" or voice-leading considerations are *primary* for each 
compositional decision. Discussing C-major Invention, Dreyfus explains (p. 
14) that "the adjustments in the treble in m. 8 therefore resulted neither 
from artistic whimsy nor from a desire for variation but from a need to 
replace the result of a faulty transformation." Leaving aside that his 
preceding discussion about this "mechanist" explanation is itself hard to 
make sense of, I would question whether we should, in general, assume that 
each of Bach's compositional solutions "results from" from a single 
factor. Rather, they tend to fulfill several functions at once, and this 
is essential to his contrapuntal genius. While the adjustment in question 
? the transpositional level of the thematic figure at the latter half of 
m. 8 ? may improve local verticalities (Dreyfus's explanation), it also 
enabled Bach to build a stepwise ascending voice-leading progression 
(G?A?B?C?D) towards the ^2 (albeit, not the Urlinie ^2), in parallel with 
the opening C?D?E ascent towards the ^3.

There are also several details in Dreyfus's book that suggest that his 
attempts to downplay the significance harmony and voice leading may 
partially stem from his defective command of these aspects. For example, 
his Example 1.3 (p. 16) includes a reduction in which the beginning D of 
the left-hand statement of the theme figure in m. 5 is reduced out and the 
passing E shown instead, despite the significance of the D as the root of 
the V7/V and despite the lucid parallelism and registral connection 
between this statement and the one that establishes the tonic in m. 1.

Olli Väisälä
Sibelius Academy
ovaisala at siba.fi

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