Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory

Organicism from Beethoven to Total Serialism
Much of theory is there to demonstrate why a piece of music coheres the way it does, why it is unified, and the form that insures its unity.

E.T.A. Hoffman came up with a real humdinger when he said that that Beethoven‘s Fifth grows from a single motivic cell. This, of course, was an amazing insight and lead to a whole school of organicist theory-making. The most famous of this school was Heinrich Schenker, who picked up the ball of the organic and ran with it. He came up with a nifty vocabulary like Urlinie and Ursatz and reduced the foreground of a piece to a middleground and background. He was hell-bent on showing that the great masterworks were organically unified (with some curious tautologies). As good as his theory is, it ignored a lot, namely rhythm and delicious inexplicables on the foreground, you know the “surface” of the piece, which is what meets our ears. As filmmaker Raul Ruiz has written: “The most successful symphonic poems make use of the accidental elements of the narrative to create purely musical values.” This would go right over Schenker’s head.

Before moving on to the bête noir of the twentieth century, I’d like to say something about rhythmic theory. Rhythm, supposedly the basis of music, is notoriously difficult to theorize and has always been low on the totem pole of theorizing. The 20th century’s first great theorist of rhythm was Henry Cowell, who discusses this at length in his visionary New Musical Resources (1930). Kyle Gann makes some advances in his exhaustive study of Nancarrow‘s player piano studies. Rhythmic theory is a “hot” topic today.

But getting back to Schenker and organicism. This inevitably led to Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone system. He never really taught it (he taught counterpoint and harmony) and wrote only one essay on the topic “Composition with Twelve Tones.” It was left to subsequent generations to do that.

From Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory
by Robert Hilferty
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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