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Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Heinrich Schenker and his followers

I am no Schenkerian. My knowledge of Schenker is limited and I never really did any analysis using his methods. I read criticism on Schenker’s theory, I read about his method and I know quite well several books and articles that are highly influenced by his theory. It is quite clear that Schenker is the most influential music theorist since the second half of the twentieth century. He has fanatic followers who believe in his theory and spread it. He has admirers that are influenced by him, yet are also critical to his thoughts. And there are people, like me, who highly respect his work yet feel far from it. Perhaps in the future, if I learn more about his work, I might be converted.

Recently, a book on Schenker call The Schenker Project was written by Nicholas Cook. I read parts of it and I think that it is very good. Cook has extensive knowledge on Schenker in particular and music analysis in general (he has a very good book which is ‘a must’ for anyone interested in Musical Analysis). Here is part of the abstract of the book: ‘This book aims to explain Schenker’s project through reading his key works within a series of period contexts. These include music criticism, the field in which Schenker first made his name; Viennese modernism, particularly the debate over architectural ornamentation; German cultural conservatism, which is the source of many of Schenker’s most deeply entrenched values; and Schenker’s own position as a Galician Jew who came to Vienna just as fully racialized anti-semitism was developing there.’

It is well known that Schenker’s theory ignores things such as rhythm and orchestration. Some of Schenker’s followers continued his work in very interesting ways. When I was young and naïve, I wrote a negative review on Harald Krabs’s book on Schumann (Fantasy Pieces). I still stand behind most of the criticism that I wrote at the time (a different version of part of this review can be found in my PhD in one of the chapters on Pierrot lunaire). Yet today I am capable of appreciating even more his achievements in this book.

John Rink, who was my Ph.D. supervisor, is influenced by Schenker. His is one of the theorists that include quazi-Schenkerian methods in research on performance. A fascinating article that he wrote doing this is: ‘Analysis and (or?) performance’ in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). It is interesting that this article in meant to assist performers. It advocates a middle way between those who think that one must do comprehensive Schenkerian analysis in order to perform and those who are against any kind of analysis before performing. He uses the term ‘informed intuition’.

Apart from the problems mentioned above, Schenker’s theory in misguided in the following (this is not meant to be a comprehensive list):

1) It claims to be the only truth.
2) It suggests that a work of Genius is based of certain structural definitions.
3) It claims that works of Genius are German.
4) It ignores the cultural and social aspects of music making.
5) It is based on the concept of organicism which is anachronistic.

It is important that every serious musician learns about Schenker. However, this must be conducted in a critical manner.

Since this blog deals alot with issues if performance, I would like to mention an important book that was published lately: Heinrich Schenker, ed. Heribert Esser, The Art of Performance (USA: Oxford University Press, 2002) This book includes unpublished writings on performance by Schenker. It is facinating and not expensive.

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