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Questioning Schenkerism

Bengt Edlund

During the past fifty years Schenkerian theory has been adopted as the main method for analysing tonal music. This book questions the value of Schenker’s «tonal analysis» for musical description and interpretation, and discusses its relations to «generative» theory and «implicational» analysis – taking into account its links with linguistic syntax and the perception of tonal closure. It is observed how auxiliary theoretical concepts transform the music so as to pave the way for preordained tonal structures. Alternative readings of the music examples are provided.
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Ever since I got to know Schenkerian analysis during my student years, I have been sceptical of it, and the more I learnt about it, the more negative I turned. More often than not, the music under analysis fared so badly. And yet, to my amazement, this method was embraced so enthusiastically by so many analysts, had so many adherents.

The fact that, when listening to music, we pay less attention to some events in favour of others that emerge as more important, is most productive when it comes to analysis. It is therefore a pity that this idea has virtually always been used for one and the same thing in Schenkerian analysis: to force Ursätze onto tonal music in order to demonstrate that the music exhibits tonal unity. This busyness is superfluous, however, since Schenker’ theory has established beforehand that, given the analytical devices warranted by its success story, any non-deficient piece of tonal music is bound to exhibit an Ursatz.

But there are so many other and more worthwhile things to say about music, so much else to discover if you cease to treat it as a quasi-visual, through-and-through hierarchical thing, if you try to describe it as a process. Maybe it is time to proclaim a fifty-year moratorium of Schenkerian analysis, or at least to ask for a less orthodox approach to reduction. Meanwhile, it is necessary to disturb a tradition of panegyrics and routine analysis with some criticism of...

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