Book ReviewsNo. 98

Morgan, Robert P. 2014. Becoming Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Abstract

In my view, there is a real need for the kind of book that Robert Morgan’s Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology aspires to be: a succinct, lucid, and sympathetic summary of the most important works of the most important music theorist, one that shows how those works comprise an integrated theoretical program, a “complete, self–enclosed system” (14)— in a word, a Wissenschaft. Needless to say, this is in many circles no longer seen as a fashionable, or even remotely credible, way of doing intellectual history. A backward glance at the last few decades of developments in music studies leaves one with the impression that the project of rational reconstruction died a mostly unmourned death when Dahlhaus died a premature death in 1989.1 But “Schenkerism,” as Narmour dubbed it, has always been a flagrantly, joyfully, and (in large part) self–consciously unfashionable “ism,” even (or especially) back when Schenker was figuring out how to be a Schenkerian. And, in the case of a temporally and culturally remote, sometimes willfully opaque, unfailingly cantankerous thinker like Schenker, reconstruction—which blends the exegete’s task of making a text as comprehensible as possible with the advocate’s task of making it as convincing and relevant as possible—is arguably a necessary precondition for anything resembling deconstruction, however important and edifying that hermeneutic occupation may be.

Thus I side with Morgan on a fundamental level, in that I think his book aims at a target worth aiming at. Many in the field will disagree. So be it; I’m happy to submit the opinion as a minority report. On this point, however, I anticipate consensus: Morgan fails to hit his target’s bull’s–eye. While there is plenty to be learned from Becoming Heinrich Schenker, and while everyone who likes to think about Schenker should read it (faute de mieux), I have reservations about how successfully it prosecutes the goals it sets for itself. In what follows, I will use the three components of the book’s title—“Becoming Heinrich Schenker,” “Music Theory,” and “Ideology”—to orient my criticisms and substantiate this verdict.


 

  1. In music theory, and Schenker studies in particular, one finds countercurrents to this trend, notably in the work of Matthew Brown and Mark DeBellis.