[Smt-talk] Criteria for Old and New

Chris Bonds chbonds1 at willy.wsc.edu
Tue Mar 5 20:01:56 PST 2013

If I may be permitted to interject a comment into what may well be a 
few-party exchange here--not to be rude, certainly, simply to provide 
some food for thought! (Please feel free to ignore!)

Prof. Ninov lists six "errors" of Herr Schenker. I agree completely! 
These things are important from the point of view of the listener. Why 
would composers write a plagal cadence, if not for the unique effect it 
has? What I haven't seen discussed yet, however, is the question of 
whether Schenker himself really dismissed such listener responses out of 
hand, or whether he simply had no way in his 'system' to deal with them. 
I confess to having no knowledge of Schenker's life and early 
development as a musician. I'm guessing that he had a thorough musical 
training in the tradition of his time, though, so he certainly knew what 
a plagal cadence was, as well as the function of the leading tone. So 
why would he dismiss these as being unimportant? That's what interests me.

I have a modest theory of my own about that, which might be called "the 
lure of the system." I would suggest that both Schoenberg and Schenker 
fell victim to it, to some extent. In Schenker's case, the scenario 
might have played out like this: Through much study and experience, he 
noticed certain things that musical compositions from different 
composers and times (from Bach through Brahms at least) had certain 
things in common. He also noticed (correctly, I think) that certain 
chords (such as secondary dominants) depended on others in order to be 
understood--in other words, there was a kind of pecking order of 
significance in the overall harmonic scheme of the work. This led to the 
idea of structural levels.

In my opinion, this was an astonishing insight, but also one that led to 
a great misunderstanding, which was that somehow all pieces of tonal 
music boiled down to about three basic melody lines culminating in a V-I 
progression. Schoenberg himself was said to have asked when looking at a 
Schenker graph: "But where are my favorite passages? Oh, there they 
are--in those little tiny notes!" What Schenker showed was how the V-I 
progression was a kind of gravitational attraction that gave coherence 
to tonal music. But he went further. I think he judged the skill of a 
composer in terms of how elegantly he or she was able to work within the 
iron constraints of the tonal system to produce a work of art. In other 
words, how well the composer could digress from the simple Urlinie and 
still make his or her music sound coherent. Consequently he neglected 
little details like rhythm, phrase structure, etc. (Today, because of 
advances in knowledge of the brain, we know more about how the brain 
perceives music.)

I have no doubt that Schenker believed in a  fundamental law of tonal 
music which held it together and was responsible for its coherence. He 
believed it so much that he probably more or less ignored other ways of  
achieving musical coherence, and that is where the problem lies. Felix 
Salzer fell victim to it when he tried to apply Schenker's ideas to 
music before Bach and after Brahms. That's just my opinion, of course, 
and you may disagree.

So questions remain. Is Schenker's method the best tool for 
understanding the music of the "common practice period?" Should it be 
included in, but not the only tool, in the analyst's toolbox? My answers 
to those questions at this point would be "Probably not, and certainly!" 
I've already hinted that I think highly of Charles Rosen's approach. I 
have no idea of what academic music theorists think of him, but his 
writing speaks to me because he seems to deal with the music as Tovey's 
"ideal listener" would hear it.

Thanks for reading.

Christopher Bonds
Wayne State College, Emeritus

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