[Smt-talk] has been Music theory on Wikipedia, now prolongation

Ildar Khannanov solfeggio7 at yahoo.com
Sat Jul 16 01:21:23 PDT 2011

Dear Nicolas and Dmitri,
yes, indeed, there are  philosophical problems with prolongation.
"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. "
This statement is problematic, as well. So, Schenker perceived a chord as something outside time and, of course, in order to be present in time, the chord had to be "prolonged," that is, to be inserted into a preexistent physical timeline.  This understanding of time is so naive that it renders all the following system irrelevant. It is unforgivable for a person who lived in Europe in the first third of the 20th century and could read literature in German to have such a skewed and anachronistic understanding of time.
Musical time does not exist outside the chord. The chord is an entity which constitutes musical time. If one keeps banging on a tonic triad, musical time does not occur. The quality of the chord may initiate the temporal process. However, simple arpeggiation is too weak of an impulse to create a large-scale  temporal process. That is why rock musicians grow old and still cannot produce anything larger than a tunelet.
As for Y-X-Y as a model for prolongation, the first Y is never the same as the last Y. It has been described by Hegel and supported by a consellation of philosophers. So, truly, prolongation should be taken back to the old drawing board. It is not ready for posting at Wikipedia.
Ildar Khannanov
Peabody Conservatory
solfeggio7 at yahoo.com

--- On Fri, 7/15/11, Nicolas Meeùs <nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr> wrote:

From: Nicolas Meeùs <nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr>
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Music theory on Wikipedia
To: "Dmitri Tymoczko" <dmitri at princeton.edu>
Cc: "SMT Talk" <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org>
Date: Friday, July 15, 2011, 4:46 PM

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 German.

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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