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Serious Efforts: The Music of Heinrich Schenker

The MHS Review 403, VOL. 12, NO.7 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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I mentioned my erstwhile friends Alfred and Enid (not their real names, but close) a while back in these pages. They were the refugee couple whose marriage was large­ly based on their Steinway grand and a huge repertoire of four-hand music. One could do worse, but it didn't suffice. Alfred went off to pursue his career as a psychiatrist and Enid remarried.

The other thing they had in common was Heinrich Schenker. They were ga-ga about Schenker's musical theories, which, musically speaking, stood as Talmud, Koran, and Cope Napoleon to them. They judged the acceptability of music by whether it was amenable to Schenkerian analysis--a stance that consigned to outer darkness Debussy, Ravel, and Hindemith (to name only a few) as far as they were concerned.

Schenker's is, to be sure, not a name that is likely to make most of the Alfred-and­-Enid's of this world (i.e. intelligent parlor amateurs), much less ordinary laymen, twitch with excitement and anticipation on coming on this set of records. He is known chiefly to scholars and theorists for his highly controversial, profoundly intellec­tual, and quite influential approach to what makes music tick.

Heinrich Schenker was born 120 years ago in a small city in Austrian Poland (now in the Ukrainian SSSR). An imperial scholar­ship took him to Vienna, a law degree, musical study with Bruckner, and the patronage of Brahms. He then settled into a musical career as pianist, editor, and reviewer. Because he felt that group educa­tion was a contradiction in terms (a view with which this writer heartily agrees at too late a date!), he avoided conservatories and universities, preferring to instruct privately. Perhaps his most famous pupil was Wilhelm Furtwangler, best known as a conductor, but also a composer of unusual ability.

Schenker did not believe in musical democracy. He was not one of those who assume one piece of music is as good, on its own terms, as another. He believed firmly that there were masterworks and that they were usually written by master composers. His concern to discover how and why this was so eventually came to make his overriding concern the working out of theories which he set forth in a number of books and periodicals. I must confess that I have never investigated them-a neglect probably owing to the in­tolerant enthusiasm of Alfred and Enid. Nor, though I hold a degree in music, can I make much sense of the accounts of his theories as outlined in the reference books. But, as I understand the chief ones, they boil down to something like this: (I) a tonal composition does not modulate into other keys but actually remains in its tonic throughout; (2) the contrapuntal aspects of a piece of music are more significant than its harmonic aspects; (3) a composition can be reduced to an Urlinie, a controlling melodic line which, together with its counterpart in the bass, implies an Ursatz or basic structure, all derived from the tonic triad. Some later theorists have found all this to be too limiting and simplistic. Others have seen it as a useful and even il­luminating approach to analysis.

In his early maturity Schenker began a career as a composer, but gave it up around the turn of the century for want of time and impulse. The standard accounts say nothing about his music, which, in publish­ed form, amounts to the contents of these records--five opuses for piano solo and duet and a set of Lieder. The piano works are, expectably, serious efforts in an in­teresting late-romantic musical language. The songs, the annotations tell us, look to Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. I find them closer to Hugo Wolf, though the texts (by Lilienkron, Jacobowski, and Wilhelm Miiller) are on the icky side.

The recordings were the product of a Schenker symposium at the Hartt School of Music, and the several pianists are members of the faculty there. The singer, Howard Sprout, is said to be nationally known. His voice is a dark throaty baritone, and he knows the style thoroughly. If you have a sense of adven­ture or are a devoted Schenkerian, you are not likely to find this music elsewhere on records.

Review of The Music of Heinrich Schenker page 61

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