[Smt-talk] Music theory on Wikipedia

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Fri Jul 15 14:46:27 PDT 2011

Le 15/07/2011 19:26, Dmitri Tymoczko a écrit :
> I've always thought that the notion of "prolongation" is freighted 
> with really serious philosophical complications. Anyone who could 
> remove these complications, and come up with a non-circular definition 
> of "prolongation," would be doing the field a great service ...
I think that Schenker's own notion of "prolongation" is without much 
problem in Schenker's own terms -- which must be read in the original 
> I've actually been thinking about this issue off and on for years.  My current best guess is that "prolongation" is an intentional, rather than a grammatical concept: to say "X prolongs Y" is (roughly speaking) to make an intentional claim about how the composer used X as a means of getting to (or doing) Y.  This contrasts with the formal or grammatical or descriptive concepts (e.g. "V7 chord") familiar from other regions of musical discourse.
To say that "X prolongs Y" fully contradicts Schenker's own description, 
in that is presupposes, as you say, that X preexists as "a means of 
getting to (or doing) Y". What is given is Y, at first a mere 
abstraction of a chord, a mere image of the series of harmonic partials. 
In order to become a musical chord, Y must be inscribed it time, 
"prolonged", which may be done by a mere arpeggiation -- producing no 
subordinate chord. The prolongation, however, may involve filling in the 
"tonal space" (the empty intervals) of the initial chord and this, is 
special cases, may happen to produce a subordinate chord X. This X by no 
means is "doing Y"; it merely is a by-product of Y itself.
     I think that Roland Barthes' description of the construction of 
discourses proposes something similar, which I didn't reread recently 
enough to remind his own terms. A discourse is a succession of nodes, 
each of which may receive an ornamentation (I think his term is 
/catalyse/)//which certainly smooths the succession and which possibly 
gives rise to secundary nodes. This also has to do with how a discourse 
can develop from a deep structure, in Shomsky's terms.
     Schenker's conception of the "tonal space" is developed in a text 
titled /Erläuterungen/, that he published twice in the last volumes of 
/Der Tonwille/ and twice in the two first ones /Das Meisterwerk in der 
Musik --/  this fourfold publication might suffice to stress how 
important this short text was for him.

Prolongation indeed is intentional -- not in the sense that the composer 
used X as a means to doing Y, but that Y served as a means to produce X. 
This is the intentionality of the work itself, not necessarily of the 
composer. And, obviously, Schenkerian analysis has nothing in common 
with a mere descriptive labeling of chords with roman numerals. I am not 
sure that this can be viewed in terms of intentionality /vs 
/grammaticality, as you suggest. Roman numeral analysis is lexical at 
best, and has little to say about grammar; I do not see how a grammar 
could be conceived without a level of intentionality.
> Interestingly, my digression couldn't be included in a Wikipedia article, since it hasn't been published anywhere.  (Wikipedia has strict standards about avoiding "original" or "unpublished" research.)  But nor could Wikipedia include a simple, uncontroversial summary of what "prolongation" means, because we in the field don't really agree about the issue at all.  So about the best you could hope for is a survey of the various proposals that have been made, one that gets updated as the discussion proceeds.
Well, I would be tempted to consider that proposals based on Schenker's 
own writings should gain preeminence, at least in articles devoted to 
Schenkerian concepts (prolongation, as a concept, may have an existence 
as a non-Schenkerian, or post-Schenkerian, or neo-Schenkerian concept, 
but that is not my concern here).

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne
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