Nicolas Meeùs

Formenlehre’ in Der freie Satz: A Transformational Theory

Schenker writes: “Das Neue in der nachfolgenden Darstellung der Formen liegt in der Ableitung aller Formen als eines äußersten Vordergrundes von dem Hintere und Mittelgrund” (Der freie Satz, § 306). Ernst Oster translates this as follows: “All forms appear in the ultimate foreground; but all of them have their origin in, and derive from, the background. This is the innovative aspect of my explanation of forms”. Modern Schenkerians rightly wondered in what sense forms could “have their origin” in the background and “derive” (or merely “be derived”, abgeleitet) from it.

My communication will first remind that form is not inherent in music, that it is assigned by an analytical process which describes (or should describe) the piece as a ‘work of art’, characterized by coherence and closure. Schenker came to realize that traditional theories of form often failed in this respect and suggested that coherence stems from the background: “A content, unfurled before us continuously in the foreground, only comes to true coherence when it arises from a coherence already clear-sightedly pre-perceived in the depths of a background”. (MwM III, 20.) This new ‘Formenlehre’ is a true transformational theory, a set of rewriting (elaboration) rules linking the background to the foreground. Such a conception does not reject traditional theories of form, it adds to them a new, complementary, somehow ‘perpendicular’ dimension: “The sole coherence in depth from background to foreground is also the coherence in width in the horizontality of the foreground: it is such coherence, considered biologically, that realizes the genuinely organic, the synthesis of a musical work, its living breath”. (MwM, ibid.) This coherence, Schenker adds, concerns rhythm and meter, and even tonality, as well as form. His ‘Formenlehre’ therefore provides a possible general definition of what we call ‘analysis’.