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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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Chapter 6: Schubert, Schumann, and Schenkerism. Tonal vs. focal Reduction


← 304 | 305 → Chapter 6 Schubert, Schumann, and Schenkerism. Tonal vs. focal Reduction


There are signs that Schenkerian analysis is back in Europe, and even that it may be approaching Scandinavia, a remote corner that has not yet been much afflicted by this particular brand of musical analysis. Provincial retardation is not equivalent to immunity, however, so we should prepare ourselves by paying Schenkerian analysis some critical attention, which is as close as you can come to a vaccination in the humanities.1

Using two short piano pieces as specimens, I will discuss some of the peculiarities of Schenkerian analysis, but before doing so I should briefly declare my own attitude towards this approach to music. I think that layer-by-layer reduction is an important idea in music theory and may be a valuable tool when it comes to analysis. But “tonal analysis” as currently practiced often means that the hierarchical aspect of music is greatly exaggerated. Music is after all a temporal art, and when we listen to (or play) it, it makes up a sequence, not a static structure with quasi-visual properties.

Furthermore, I do not see why reduction of tonal music must necessarily be “tonal”, why reduction must always be pursued in order to show that such music is unified in virtue of being a set of recursive prolongations of a single and simple harmonic cadence accompanying a descending treble line. There are certainly other schemes or properties that may make...

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