On Schenker and Schenkerians

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Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Or, to bring it back to areas more pertinent to the context:

We were surprised that concert halls are still programming, and music theorists still analysing, the music of Beethoven, who died almost 200 years sgo.

You see what I mean? It is a beautifully clear instance of the confusing of history and present that also goes on when people get exercised about whether we still want statues of slave-traders in our city centres, or whether to perform music with explicitly racist content.

When people critique Schenker for his racism (and sexism, and disdain for the lower classes, he had the full set), it’s not really that they’re judging him as a person. They get that he was, as they say, ‘of his time’.

Having said that, that particular excuse is a classic invocation of the Myth of Historical Progress. There are plenty of people contemporary with and earlier than Schenker who managed to propound philosophies that upheld the essential humanity of those groups. Sylvia Pankhurst, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass were the first three that leapt to mind; you can add Karl Marx if you really need a White male in that list.

So, maybe people are judging Schenker as a person, but it’s still not what you’d call a personal attack. They know they’re not going to change him. His work is done long since.

When people critique Schenker, they are actually criticising those who have chosen to place him, and keep him, at the centre of an entire academic industry whilst sweeping his antiblack and misogynist views under the carpet. If you are going to expend so much research time poring over his writings, and so much classroom time making sure music-theorists-in-training can handle the detail of his techniques, you have really no excuse for not also hauling his ideological positions out into the open and assessing what implications they have for how we handle his legacy today. The critique is not so much of Schenker, that is – after all, he is dead and beyond changing - it is of Schenkerians, who are very much alive and have plenty of power to shape their discipline.

Which of course the Schenkerians know really, which is why their responses are so full of defensiveness and denial. Some of their responses I should say; others are producing much more interesting developments.

Musically, I still feel there are useful things we can learn from linear/tonal analysis, and as such I think it can quite reasonably stake a claim to a place in the curriculum. But there is a problem if those scholars who build their careers on it – and thus control how it is delivered in the classroom – are so invested in the work of one proponent of the approach, who remains so dominant that it bears his name, that they seem unable to appraise it in anything other than its own terms.

Liz, you quote my open letter, but your comment deals with only part of it. You quote:
"We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago."
You write that this is "a beautifully clear instance of the confusing of history and present", but my point (of which I may not have been fully aware when I wrote this open letter) is that there also is a confusion of geography.
What surprizes me is that Ewell is looking for a justification of his concern with the situation in the American SMT in an obviously extremely complex European situation between WW1 and WW2.
If what Ewell is attacking is what you call "an entire academic industry", he certainly is meaning an American industry. I can assure you, having thaught Schenker in the Sorbonne for 20 year, that this was not an industry, rather a battle against conservatism.
Ewell claims that other musics than white European ones could be discussed in music theory, but that again is an American problem. With my students in Europe, I discussed Indian or Arabic musics, and also whether Schenkerian ideas could be applied to these.
Several Schenkerians who wrote in the JSS are not Americans: they apparently did not realize (nor did I) that Ewell's attacks aimed at American Schenkerism exclusively – and, indeed, Ewell never said that, and the SMT was prompt to set the fault on Schenker and modern Schenkerians rather than on itself.
I vainly tried to open a discussion about all this. All my attempts to speak with the SMT where answered by a deafening silence. That, to me, is today the main problem.

Thank you for taking the time to comment in detail Nicolas.

I do get your point that the context of the scholarship inflects its meaning: European racism operates much more at arm's length than the American sort, via our colonial history, and the way that European culture acts as a proxy for White supremacism in the US doesn't really make sense over here in the same way.

But still, I don't think European music theory can really distance itself from the fundamental questions Phil Ewell is asking. And I think any European Schenkerians who claim not to understand the institutional context of American music theory are being disingenuous; either that or extraordinarily narrow in their approach to their subject. Even I am aware of it, and I have never been a professional Schenkerian, merely someone who got to teach at undergraduate level as part of a range of analytical methods.

(Tbf, I'd not be surprised if American scholars are less aware of the European scene than vice versa, so again I see where you're coming from in that regard.)

Anyway, I am glad to hear about your efforts to centre other musics in your teaching. It is certainly needed. I have had less interaction with musicological colleagues in continental Europe since leaving academia 12 years ago, but my impression back then was that your syllabuses and programming choices were at least as tightly bound to the white male canon as those in the UK - and I am still making those critiques over here today.

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