Why did Schenker write a theory of music?
'Inferior instinct and (often) complete lack of secure knowledge on the part of today's performing musicians are the reason that the master works - how bitter a truth! - have not been heard in our time in their authentic shape' (Heinrich Schenker - Counterpoint, p. xviii)
Schenker was not afraid to criticise what he saw as a general lack of theoretical and practical understanding amongst musicians. As a keen performer, composer, teacher and editor of music himself, he believed that the professional practice of all these activities suffered from serious misunderstandings of how tonal music works. He gradually developed his theory in order to remedy this situation, which he feared was causing the death of the Austro-German tradition that he loved (i. e. the music of Bach through Mozart to Beethoven and beyond).
The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg shared these fears but his solution was to invent a new technique (the twelve-tone or serial method of composition) that would allow composers to revitalise the Austro-German tradition.
Schenker believed that much of the blame for the general poor understanding of music lay with other theorists and critics, and the greater part of his early work was concerned with correcting what he saw as their mistakes. One of the many approaches he particularly scorned was roman numeral harmonic analysis - his criticism being that this type of analysis ignored the linear aspect of music (how it unfolds through time). His theory aimed to clarify and correct existing theories of harmony and counterpoint before bringing them together as a comprehensive theory of tonal music.
Schenker's main purpose was to improve the understanding of music amongst musicians, but he also tried to develop analytical system that would bear comparison with other traditionally more rigorous disciplines. The theory that is explained on this website and in most text books lies at the heart of an ambitious project that casts it net much wider. Schenker's work covers everything from highly imaginative interpretations, through some of the first scholarly editions of Beethoven, to speculations on the origin and development of music.
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