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Who was Heinrich Schenker?

Heinrich Schenker was born in 1868 in Galicia, now part part of Poland but then ruled by Austria. He was not just a theorist but enjoyed a varied musical career. He initially earned his living as an accompanist, teacher, and music critic and his theoretical interests grew out of these other activities (click here to play a midi file of an unpublished solo song - 'Heimat' - by Schenker).It was while studying law in Vienna that Schenker decided to take a serious interest in music, enrolling at the conservatory where he studied, among other things, composition with Anton Bruckner.

One can see both the law student and the composer in Schenker's writings on music. Until fairly recently, Schenker's reputation has been based both on his rhetorical demolitions of other theorists, and pedantic definitions and clarifications that would not look out of place in a legal contract. It is as well, however, to remember the second part of the title of his three-volume magnum opus - New Musical Theories and Fantasies.

The first volume of this trilogy, Harmony, appeared in 1906 and although highly detailed and frequently technical it has many examples of Schenker's more fantastical and poetic side. It is probably the last volume, Free Composition - hastily transcribed by his wife during his final year of life (1935) that has given him his reputation for dry and somewhat impenetrable prose.

The following two quotes demonstrate these two facets of his literary style - the first from Free Composition and the second from his series of essays The Masterwork in Music:

  1. the interruption of - rests also on the first as the primary tone of the linear progression - , just as though the line of a fourth were not present between these two points.
  2. Somehow the initial third-progression sprang up fully formed in bars 1-3, a creature of flesh and blood that came into being in the deepest recesses of the master's tonal imagination [Bach in the seventh of his Twelve Short Prelude's].

Schenker's influence has been significant in various fields of study and has increased since his death. He pioneered modern editorial practice and such musical giants as Furtwangler and Hindemith took a keen interest in his analytical work. Anglo-American scholarship has been enormously changed since his major works were translated from their original German in the Sixties and Seventies. His theoretical rigour initially attracted such theorists as Allen Forte, but his work has gradually found a broader appeal across a range of musical disciplines.

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