Heinrich Schenker’s Conception of Harmony, a Surprise

New this month from the University of Rochester Press is Robert Wason and Matthew Brown’s book Heinrich Schenker’s Conception of Harmony, the first detailed study of Schenker’s pathbreaking 1906 treatise, showing how it reflected 2500 years of thinking about harmony and presented a vigorous reaction to Austro-Germanic music theory ca. 1900. Our thanks to Dr. Wason for contributing this piece on an important discovery he made during his research for this book.

Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) began his career as music theorist and music editor in Vienna around the turn of the last century. Matthew Brown and I begin our book with the claim that Schenker “is generally regarded as the leading music theorist of the 20th century.”[1] No surprise there. Some may question this view, but many will nod in assent, happily or grudgingly.

Schenker’s “Theory of Harmony” (Harmonielehre, 1906) is his first major work in music theory––that is, technical writing about music––about how music works and is composed; “harmony” is “the combining of notes simultaneously, to produce chords, and successively, to produce chord progressions,” [2] and in the 19th century, the most important topic of music theory. As a practicing jazz pianist, I’ve always been interested in harmony, and Schenker’s late work, which I’d heard about back in the 1960s (the sources were buried in German) promised to reveal the secret of the way music “really worked.” Naturally I was interested in what Schenker had to say about harmony. I first got hold of the English translation of his book during my undergraduate years,[3] and was immediately disappointed, just as the harmony book by Arnold Schoenberg––Schenker’s fellow Viennese bête noire––had already disappointed me![4] Little did I know that both were seriously flawed, abridged translations. The Schoenberg book came out in an accurate translation of the complete text thirty years after the first one,[5] and turned out to be a lively book, the last few chapters anything but a disappointment. But Schenker’s book, which appeared to very mixed reviews, has never been redone.

I’ve thought about the book on and off over the years. Once I got into serious study of German in the 70s, I wrote about its debts to the past,[6] but my viewpoint expanded greatly in the late 80s when Schenker’s papers became available to scholars. One untitled paper was called by Schenker’s widow “The Tonal System” (Das Tonsystem)––a fundamental topic in harmony. I did a first draft of a translation with a research seminar I taught, and the final revision of that together with a paper on the published translation inspired my idea for our book. I recruited Matthew, a friend, colleague, expert in Schenker’s late work, and the first to publish evidence of essential text left out of the 1954 translation.  We were a good pair for the project.

The “surprise” began to emerge gradually, very late in the game: first, I was puzzled that Schenker began his book with a discussion of “motives” (usually repetitions of rhythms associated with melody––and never covered in harmony books). Later he used an unharmonized tune to introduce chords! Meanwhile, both his theory and aesthetic observations led Matthew inexorably back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Then we came upon excellent work by a British colleague that discussed an early essay of Schenker’s on motives,[7] which incidentally suggested also that Schenker knew ancient Greek music theory. The essay seemed to parallel the one on the tonal system, and I translated it as well for the book. But I kept wondering: motives and the Greeks…what could be going on here? Finally, one day I read the following, by Schenker:

I am prepared to restore to the word harmony (which the Greeks were the

first to use) what was and still is its original and finest meaning. By harmony

the imaginative Greeks understood the melody itself, that is, the succession of

tones as a whole, together with all the particular elements at work in that succession

… All too often we forget that every succession of tones, every melody, carries its own harmonic credo within itself, and that it expresses this conviction autonomously.[8]

Ευρηκα!––(in Greek), or, “eureka,” as Archimedes exclaimed: “I’ve found it!”  Schenker’s conception of harmony is not just melodically driven, but also a conscious transformation of the Classical Greek view of the topic: it’s about the proportionality and balance that hold together the many disparate musical techniques that make a cohesive piece of “common-practice” music. Schenker’s “Theory of Harmony” is only incidentally about “chords!”

That discovery fell right in with suspicions we had all along, epitomized by our cover design, already in process: an image of “Harmonia,” the mythical Greek goddess of harmony and concord, as depicted in 1877 by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), an artist associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. In its synthesis of antiquity and modernity, the movement was not unlike the later Viennese Jugendstil that surrounded Schenker, whose book likewise is asynthesis of ancient and modern thinking about harmony.  The whole process of writing and rewriting our book finally enabled us to grasp this basic but crucial point, which now suffuses the book’s text–and its gorgeous jacket. Indeed, even the much broader synthesis that Schenker’s later work would achieve is clearly prefigured in the remarkable synthesis of this first book, which many have regarded, mistakenly, as purely “conventional.”

[1] Robert W. Wason and Matthew Brown, Heinrich Schenker’s Conception of Harmony (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020) (due to appear in late June): xi.

[2] Grove Music Online, s.v. “harmony.”

[3] Heinrich Schenker, Harmony, O. Jonas, ed.; E. M. Borgese, tr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

[4] Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, Robert D. W. Adams, tr. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948).

[5] Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, Roy E. Carter, tr. (Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, 1978).

[6] Robert W. Wason, Viennese Harmonic Theory from Albrechtsberger to Schenker and Schoenberg (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985; Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1995).

[7] Nicholas Marston, “‘. . . nur ein Gleichnis’: Heinrich Schenker and the Path to ‘Likeness,’” Music and Letters 100 (2019): 1–31.

[8] Heinrich Schenker, “The Spirit of Musical Technique,” trans. William Pastille, in Nicholas Cook, The Schenker Project (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 325.

This guest post was written by Robert W. Wason, Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Affiliate Faculty in Jazz and Contemporary Media at the Eastman School of Music.

Heinrich Schenker’s Conception of Harmony
By Robert W. Wason & Matthew Brown
9781580465755, Hardback, £71.50 or $87.75

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