Thursday, October 23, 2008

Schenker goes to America

Heinrich Schenker never visited America. In fact, Schenker himself once dismissed inhabitants of the New World, convinced that these musical underlings would never “attain the intellectual and moral qualifications” required to achieve a “higher goal for humanity” . Ironically enough, nearly 50 years after Schenker’s own passing in 1935, the first American Symposium on Heinrich Schenker was held at the Mannes College of Music (New York) in March 1985, celebrating the originality and creativity of Schenker’s contributions to Music Theory. Not only did the symposium symbolize the accretion of interest in Schenker’s theories as laboriously worked out between 1906 and 1935 , it audaciously sought to re-imagine Schenker’s system, stretching its parameters to include analyses of music beyond Schenker’s constricted Teutonic canon . To blindly assume that Schenker’s trans-Atlantic success was a symptom of American academic hospitality, however, would to be to grossly misunderstand the very nature of Schenkerian transmission in America from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Schenker’s body of theoretical thought reached America’s shores in the early 1930s and 40s through Hans Weiss, Ernst Oster, Oswald Jonas and Felix Salzer, first generation pupils who established themselves in conservatories or universities primarily in the North American region. Jonas, for example, assumed a position at the Roosevelt University in Chicago while Weisse resided at the Mannes School of music , which was, for many years, the only American University to conduct courses based on Schenkerian Analysis . What proceeded their emigration from an increasingly war-bent nation, however, was a silence – perhaps even an embarrassed one. Despite their unequivocal devotion to their master’s passionate theoretical inclinations, there existed the possibility that their silence was precisely predicated on Schenker’s rhetoric being overly-passionate for the predilections of their new neighbours.

As William Rothstein explains in his reflection “The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker”, the temperament that dominated the American intellectual scene was one based on exactly the opposite: a lack of passion for any singular principle truth, favouring a climate that cherished democratic ideals of (academic) plurality . For Rothstein (who studied under Ernst Oster in the 1970s), Schenker’s imported system contained certain radical “unassimilable elements” such as the latter’s “pan-German nationalism” and “unbending absolutism” as well as his “hatred of twentieth-century music” . Instead, Schenker was whispered amidst the hallowed halls of musicological history, framed as that German zealot who exclaimed: “Strauss, Pfitzner, Humperdinck, Mahler, Reger – such poverty!”

If music theorists in the 1930s to the 60s failed to pay any real attention to Schenker, then exactly what were they preoccupied with? Therein lies the difficulty in understanding Schenkerian transmission as a theoretical discipline, for the precise bearings of music theory in America had not yet been established. One recent debate that has arisen out of ‘New’ Musicology surrounds what Lydia Goehr famously attacked as the “work concept”. The crux of Goehr’s argument is that the autonomous “musical work” as we know it was essentially a 19th Century construction; thus any reference to pre-19th century music using the epistemological framework of a “work” is essentially an act of “conceptual imperialisation” by contemporary researchers . Likewise, trying to understand the transmission of Schenker as a “theory” in musical-theoretical circles would be forgetting that the entire discipline of music theory (co-existent with the ideologies enabling the idea of the professional music theorist) was nonexistent in the 1930s.

Long before Joseph Kerman’s biting critique on “positivist” musicology was published , music theory was subsumed under a much larger umbrella of academic categorization, namely that of “analysis” which was, crudely speaking, a muscle which the discipline of musicology flexed. Mostly a product of 19th century thought, theory’s wedding to analysis found its primary use in musicological examples which subjected “musical masterpieces” to “technical operations, descriptions, reductions and demonstrations purporting to show how they ‘work’” . Guido Adler, long considered as a founding father of modern musicology (Musikwissenschaft) subsumed the study and research of aesthetics, theory (psychology and acoustics) and pedagogy under the arm of ‘systematic’ musicology, as contrasted with ‘historical’ musicology . By doing so, Adler simultaneously helped to define the discursive space within which music “theory” would operate: not independently from musical-historical issues, but in tandem with, even connected to, three other arms of musical thinking. As Bruno Nettl notes, Adler’s assertions meant that “all types of scholarship in music are, and properly ought to be, part of musicology” . American colleges followed suit, much to the tune of Paul Henry Lang’s statement in the 1930s that Musicology rightfully “unites in its domains all the sciences which deal with the production, appearance and application of the physical phenomenon called sound” .

A landmark in the institutionalisation of Musicology as an academic discipline finally came in the 1934 with the founding of the American Musicological Society (AMS), primarily driven by the efforts of Charles Seeger which finally paved the way for the professionalization of the American musicologist (less music theorist), whose production of knowledge was, in turn, defined by the institutional constraints of the Society. According to the 1955 AMS report of the Committee on Graduate Studies, the following definition of the field was elaborated as:

“... a field of knowledge, having as its object the investigation of music as a physical, psychological, aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. The musicologist is a research scholar and he aims primarily at knowledge about music. With this primacy he differs from the composer ... and the performer.”

By 1955, then, either theoretical studies in music had been erased from the list of the professional musicologists’ duties, or had been absorbed into “physical, psychological, aesthetic and cultural phenomenon”. But for the first time in American musicological history, the “research scholar” occupied a position independent to the “composer ... and the performer”. Schenker’s scions, therefore, were either to be absorbed by the academic institution as a researcher (and risk the difficult business of defining Schenker’s systems on the terms enumerated by the AMS), or choose monkhood in the refuge of conservatories where composers and performers were churned out. However, by the late 1950s, Alder and Seeger’s utopian unified musicological formulae had begun to turn sour. In 1955, the Society for Ethnomusicology was formed (also spearheaded by Seeger), giving palpable form to the fissures inherent in the dominant musicological doctrine. These fissures, as Joseph Kerman points out, were not merely topical ones but also fissures predicated on differing “philosophies and ideologies” . Indeed, ethnomusicology ventured and assumed the disciplinary principles of anthropology first laid out by Carl Stumpf in 1886 while musicologists with an inclination towards theory watched on enviously.

All this inner dissent was finally assuaged with the founding of the Journal of Music Theory (JMT) in 1957, merely 2 years after the ethnomusicological divorce. In the foreword to the first volume, David Kraehenbuehl enthusiastically proclaimed the journal’s new stake in the field of musical scholarship as a “restoration of music theory as more than a didactic convenience, more than a necessary discipline, as, in fact, a mode of creative thought” . For many closeted theorists, JMT answered prayers by remedying “the lack of any available forum” for “musicians who have maintained the classic concept of a creative music theory” , although it wasn’t met without some initial reservation . Despite the initially lukewarm reception to submissions, most of the letters to the editor confirmed that there was a genuine desire for a discursive sphere outside the reach of ‘traditional musicology’. More than provide burgeoning theorists with a sphere of discourse, JMT had to justify its self-distancing from either musicology or ethnomusicology by reformulating a certain inherited ideology of music theory. In other words, JMT had to produce music theory’s “difference” in order to “restore a common sense to our activities as music theorists” . This was partially answered by Kraehenbeuhl who sought to establish creative vigour in a “general operation” oriented by scientific principles such as “hypothesis” and “testing” . In short, Kraehenbeuhl envisioned music theory’s liberation in science, much in the way ethnomusicology rode out into the sunset on anthropology’s back.

With the sphere of discourse finally established by JMT, the closeted theorist finally found a name for the “operations” he was interested in, unified by a set of principles in a tangible material manifestation of a Journal. JMT therefore also structured an epistemological framework of identification which, by active participation (such as reading, submitting articles or participating in forums), one could subscribe to and draw authority from its legitimacy as a scholarly journal. Above all, as Patrick McCreless lucidly points out, the establishment of JMT within the network of scholarly research represented a shift in the dynamics of knowledge/power relation with ethnomusicology and musicology, ultimately allowing for the formation of Foucauldian “docile bodies” – albeit, the formation of the professional musical theorist .

With the structuring of power/knowledge relationships, a clearing emerged from the hubris of previous definitions (or lack thereof) that granted the hypothetical music theorist certain legitimacy (therefore power) in (re)producing the discourse as regulated by the JMT (also acting as a disciplinary body). Within the next few issues of JMT, a forum on “The Professional Music Theorist” emerged with Kraehenbuehl bearing the polemical torch, arguing for “an increasing and carefully trained corps of professional music theorists” to improve the “curricula” in schools . And it was not long before Schenker quickly rose to the Urliene of theoretical debate. Following a bitter argument between Howard Boatwright and Allen Forte over the former’s review of the latter’s book “Contemporary Tone-Structures”, Forte’s dissatisfaction over Boatwright’s blatant dismissal of his use of Schenkerian analysis prompted him to write an article in the third issue of JMT entitled “Schenker’s Conception of Musical Structure” .

Himself a professor at the Mannes College of Music where Hans Weiss taught, Forte’s article singlehandedly launched Schenker’s system to such heights of publicity it had never received before – not even by any of Schenker’s students nor Felix Salzer’s 1952 publication of “Structural Hearing”: an early (but gentle) attempt to spread the Schenkerian gospel . Not only did Forte’s article introduce an entire nation of identity-crisis-ridden music theorists to Schenker for the first time , Forte also preached the future of music theory through Schenker’s eyes by laying a project of possible theoretical applications . 1959 also marked the appointment of Allen Forte to the Yale music program, where he “proclaimed an ideological commitment to Schenker and a program of work which was to make that university into the world centre for the dissemination and extension of the Austrian theorists’ thought. ” The longevity of Schenker in JMT was further ensured when Forte took on the reins of editor to the journal in the 1960s.

As we have seen, it was primarily through the construction of the professional music theorist as legitimized by JMT that allowed for a sphere of discourse of Schenker to ultimately emerge. If we peer through the lens of history via our received notions of the modern music theorist, Schenker’s reception in the United States would be grossly misunderstood. Similarly, if we exchange positions of perspective and assume that Schenker arrived on American theoretical shores hook line and sinker, we would be forgetting that inasmuch as the concept of the professional musical theorist had to exist as a productive receptacle for Schenkerian thought, Schenkerian thought had to be coloured by the rose-tinted spectacles of this newfangled music theorist in order to reflect the ideologies and philosophy of the disciplinary system which, in turn, defined and empowered the theorist. Indeed the ghost of Schenker paid a heavy price when he sought intellectual refuge in America; as Rothstein observes: “Schenker had become so fashionable that he was being paid the ultimate American compliment: he was being vulgarized” .

Even as Forte’s article pressured the intellectual community for the need of translations of Schenker’s work, editors eventually faced a disturbing challenge with balancing honest representation and democratic ideals. For all the furore Schenker’s system had raised, Schenker’s writing remained strongly passionate, and vehemently offensive to the American theorist. In a famous example, either Oswald Jonas or Ernst Oster excised offending passages from Schenker’s “Free Composition”, exiling them under a 5 page long “appendix 4”. The decision to publish the appendix, according to Rothstein, was “a matter of intense controversy” for they foregrounded Schenker as an inhospitably ardent foul-mouth who rejected “both communism and Western-style democracy” and espoused an “elitist, aristocratic culture . Although eventually published, these products serve as historical documents, material relics infused with the ideological traces of their making.

Today, music theory has called a truce with Schenker; in exchange of incorporation and invested scholarly research, theory has carefully removed the Schenkerian sting where theorists felt it was superfluous to ‘the theory itself’. This de-contextualized Schenker enjoyed particularly good health under the pseudonym “neo-Schenkerianism” , finding itself in numerous analytical and theoretical applications, even in the study of non-Western music cultures. However, it would be useful to pay heed to Rothstein’s warning that “Schenker can no more be exempt from the history of ideas than any other thinker” , implying the need for a broader socio-cultural-political examination of Schenker’s theories and their geneses. Most recently, Nicholas Cook’s brilliant book “The Schenker Project” (2007) has accomplished this task formidably (cleverly avoiding the trappings of attempting to construct an intellectual history), framing Schenker as “a reluctant modernist” resisting the anti-modernist impulses of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Schenker would never had guessed that nearly 50 years since he left this world, he would also become a reluctant American.

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