On Schenker and Schenkerians

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Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Or, to bring it back to areas more pertinent to the context:

We were surprised that concert halls are still programming, and music theorists still analysing, the music of Beethoven, who died almost 200 years sgo.

You see what I mean? It is a beautifully clear instance of the confusing of history and present that also goes on when people get exercised about whether we still want statues of slave-traders in our city centres, or whether to perform music with explicitly racist content.

When people critique Schenker for his racism (and sexism, and disdain for the lower classes, he had the full set), it’s not really that they’re judging him as a person. They get that he was, as they say, ‘of his time’.

Having said that, that particular excuse is a classic invocation of the Myth of Historical Progress. There are plenty of people contemporary with and earlier than Schenker who managed to propound philosophies that upheld the essential humanity of those groups. Sylvia Pankhurst, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass were the first three that leapt to mind; you can add Karl Marx if you really need a White male in that list.

So, maybe people are judging Schenker as a person, but it’s still not what you’d call a personal attack. They know they’re not going to change him. His work is done long since.

When people critique Schenker, they are actually criticising those who have chosen to place him, and keep him, at the centre of an entire academic industry whilst sweeping his antiblack and misogynist views under the carpet. If you are going to expend so much research time poring over his writings, and so much classroom time making sure music-theorists-in-training can handle the detail of his techniques, you have really no excuse for not also hauling his ideological positions out into the open and assessing what implications they have for how we handle his legacy today. The critique is not so much of Schenker, that is – after all, he is dead and beyond changing - it is of Schenkerians, who are very much alive and have plenty of power to shape their discipline.

Which of course the Schenkerians know really, which is why their responses are so full of defensiveness and denial. Some of their responses I should say; others are producing much more interesting developments.

Musically, I still feel there are useful things we can learn from linear/tonal analysis, and as such I think it can quite reasonably stake a claim to a place in the curriculum. But there is a problem if those scholars who build their careers on it – and thus control how it is delivered in the classroom – are so invested in the work of one proponent of the approach, who remains so dominant that it bears his name, that they seem unable to appraise it in anything other than its own terms.

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