Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Schenkerian hermeneutics and the proto-background

The rise of Schenkerian hermeneutics was a direct response to criticisms by, principally, Joseph Kerman and Lawrence Kramer in the 1980s and early 1990s. The cluster formalism/criticism, analysis/interpretation (aka hermeneutics), modernist/postmodern (or, less plausibly, structuralist/post-structuralist -- or, minimally plausible, aestheticist/ideological), has been well rehearsed in the literature since, and the employment of the mechanics of analysis to the end of illuminating meaning has become the preferred mode in publication. An impassioned defense of Schenkerian analysis on these terms may be found in Peter H. Smith's study of Brahms, Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60.

Kerman obviously wasn't aware of the two strands of thinking about Schenkerian analysis at the time, as he not only bundles Babbitt and Forte together but in so doing grossly misrepresents the theoretical-analytical literature of the 1960s and 1970s. In any case, it is unlikely that either he or Kramer would have sympathized with the attitude of the composer-theorist characteristic of Princeton-based or trained authors, who were trying to make sense of (rationalize) Schenker and so grasp the essence of historical repertoires in light of contemporary compositional priorities (see Dembski). The clearest and most effective document in this line is Peter Westergaard's textbook-qua-treatise on tonal theory. By contrast, what we might call the New York/Yale axis was interested in embedding Schenkerian analysis in musicological accounts of historical musics (and of course in altering those narratives as well). One might point to any number of documents that sought to realize this goal, but to my mind still the most beautiful instantiation is Allen Forte's article on the early songs of Schoenberg.

In this blog post, I will construct a hermeneutical reading of D779n13 using the proto-background that I announced as my preference yesterday: ^3-^5. To make the work as clear as possible (and because the hermeneutic mode is not one I find instinctively congenial), I will use as a model an article by Frank Samarotto that is readily accessible online (see the link in References below).
The raised fourth scale degree can represent a powerful, even visceral impulse towards the dominant; once introduced, its course of harmonic resolution appears inevitable. Nonetheless, there are instances when a piece seems to rethink this impulse, and to restrain it by reverting sharp four to its natural state, resulting in what can be characterized as a kind of "sublimation." (abstract)
Samarotto draws on "energetics," in its historical description by Lee Rothfarb, to justify the hermeneutic mode, to speak of a "drama of musical forces," an "'empathetic aural experience' [that treats] music as metaphorically rich," and that "allows us to interpret the activities of those tones as meaningful, even intentional" [¶ 2]. As it turns out, however, energetics is little more than window dressing -- nothing in Samarotto's analyses or discussion could not also be found in Schachter or Schenker himself -- and in that sense the article does a disservice to the historical understanding that Rothfarb so carefully explicates.

That shortcoming, however, will not interfere with our modeling a reading on the analyses. Samarotto provides several examples in two groups: (preliminary examples) Mozart, Piano Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333, I; Beethoven, "Eroica theme" in the finale of the ballet music from the Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43; [J. S. Bach], Aria, "Bist du bei mir," BWV 508, attributed to Gottfried Stölzel; Bach, St. Matthew Passion, "Mache dich, mein Herze rein"; (main examples) Debussy's first Arabesque; Brahms, String Quintet, Op. 111, III.

The first two examples confirm that ^#4, like all significant chromatic notes, is expressive in and of itself; it has "narrative" or "dramatic" implications and, since it is single -- a distinct individual, as it were -- it is easy to ascribe agency to it (a "will" to rise to ^5). The other readings are concerned with the unexpected undermining of that characteristic motion. The ^#4, by convention, is expected to continue to ^5 and, if a significant pitch, very probably to initiate a stable area of the dominant key as well. Samarotto uses the examples to show different ways in which a turn back to the tonic region can achieve what he calls a sublimation of ^#4 in the diatonic ^4, where the diatonic redirects the energy of the chromatic note (almost in the manner of a low-level "breakthrough") or else dissipates it.

The parallel to D779n13 should be unmistakable: we just replace ^#4 with ^#5 (that is, E#) and the same process of chromatic progression and "rethinking" or "sublimation" takes place in the second strain as E5 becomes E#5 but then is pulled back to E-natural5 for the reprise. I will explore the details of a reading based on this idea in tomorrow's post.

Peter H. Smith. Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
Stephen Dembski. "The Structure of Construction." in theory only 13/5-8 (2007): 17-34.
Peter Westergaard. An Introduction to Tonal Theory. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.
Allen Forte. "Schoenberg's Creative Evolution: The Path to Atonality." Musical Quarterly 64/2 (1978): 133-176.
Frank Samarotto. "Sublimating Sharp ^4: An Exercise in Schenkerian Energetics." Music Theory Online 10/3 (September 2004): link.
Lee Rothfarb. "Energetics," in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, ed. Thomas Christensen, 927-55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.