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Some Philosophical Context for Schenker's Theories

In order to understand Schenker's approach, it is helps to be aware of some of his aesthetic and philosophical background. Early twentieth-century Vienna (where Schenker lived and worked) was a fertile breeding ground for grand theories in many fields. European culture was (and arguably still is) in the grip of attitudes that stem from the Seventeenth Century Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers preached a rational, empirical view of a world they believed could and should be explained without recourse to religion or superstition. Many of Schenker's writings show opposition to the Enlightenment project: he was highly religious and unashamedly elitist and his work is full of metaphysical and mystical justification. Nevertheless, his belief that music can ultimately be explained in terms of a completely logical system, and that our musical life can be improved by the understanding of that logic, stems ultimately from Enlightenment attitudes.
[click here for an external web-resource on the European Enlightenment]

We never benefit from merely looking at an object. Looking becomes considering, considering becomes reflecting, reflecting becomes connecting. Thus, one can say that with every intent glance we theorise

This extract forms part of a lengthy passage from Goethe (1749-1832) that Schenker quotes at the beginning of Der freie Satz, situating his project firmly within the tradition of German Idealism. Idealism is partly a reaction to the positivism of the Enlightenment - the belief that everything can be discovered by experiment. For an Idealist, the nature of the world is revealed, not through the scientific study of objects, but through thought. The cornerstone of German Idealism can be found in the philosophy of Kant (1724-1804), for whom the world of objects (things-in-themselves) is unknowable; it is our conceptual apparatus that orders the world as we know it and therefore any true knowledge of reality can come only through reason.

Schenker also quotes from Hegel (1770-1831), who is most famous for his dialectic (an ongoing process of positing a hypothesis which is contradicted by an antithesis, both of which are subsumed into a synthesis which itself can become a new hypothesis) by means of which he suggests we can eventually achieve the 'Absolute Idea'. The influence of Hegel's dialectical view of history can be seen in Schenker's descriptions of the development of music in terms of opposing forces such as Art and Nature.

German Idealist poets such as Goethe and Schiller (of 'Ode to Joy' fame) emphasise the creative power of the mind and the spirituality of nature, both of which are found in abundance in Schenker's own writings. Also characteristic of the movement is Schenker's emphasis on organic and teleological (purpose and goal rather than cause and effect) interpretations of the world around him.
[click here for an external web-resource on German Idealism]


The psychologist Max Wertheimer worked in Berlin and was a frequent visitor to Vienna. His Gestalt theory had a wide-ranging influence and Schenker's attempt to show how the parts of music relate to the whole can be understood partly in terms of this concept:

The basic thesis of gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely; what happens to a part of the whole is, in clear-cut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole. [Social Research, 11 (translation of lecture at the Kant Society, Berlin, 1924). -
[click here for an external web-resource on Gestalt theory]

Another important intellectual trend that may have influenced the nature of Schenker's rhetoric was Logical Positivism; Moritz Schlick, a leading figure in this movement, was based in Vienna. Positivism suggests that only theories that are capable of scientific verification are of any worth and that if a theory goes beyond experience it must be capable of proof through logic. Despite the many religious and metaphysical asides in his writings, Schenker went to considerable lengths to show that his theories stood up to this test.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the systematic study of language burgeoned during the period in which Schenker worked, from philology (the historical development of language) to linguistics. Schenker himself wrote in 1935, 'music is never comparable to mathematics or architecture, but only to language, a kind of tonal language' (Heinrich Schenker - Free Composition, p. 5)

Schenker was very critical of both the music theory and the music of his time. He viewed the music of his near contemporaries Stravinsky and Schoenberg as an unnatural abomination and also as symptomatic of a wider malaise within society. Austria was a difficult and unstable place to live in the decades following World War I, and Schenker's theories can partly be understood as a response to this. Schenker, like many of his contemporaries, sought out certainties in a world that often seemed increasingly devoid of them. The post-modern acceptance of uncertainty and cultural relativism (the avoidance value judgements, particularly in relation to comparisons of culture) have permeated deep into modern scholarship. These attitudes would have been unthinkable to Schenker, for whom a belief in the supremacy of Western art (particularly that from Germany) needed no apology.

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