Charles J. Smith

How to Select a Background? Start with Conventional Form …

What kind of thing is a Schenkerian background? Certainly not just a collection of notes plucked from the musical surface and promoted to greater significance (Proctor, NOTES, 1980), but rather something like a conventional form – a template of musical organization through which a piece is fruitfully viewed. For most pieces of normal size and complexity – for example Haendel’s E Major Air (“Harmonious Blacksmith” theme) – we can apply more than one background, with little to choose between the results. What sense are we to make of such a surprisingly common situation?
A Schenkerian who presumes that every piece has one definitive background may try to fault all but one – the last background standing. On purely technical grounds, more often than not, this is a futile exercise. Tellingly, the shallow middleground and foreground are usually not much changed by altering the background through which they are viewed; what alters is the relative weighting of middleground patterns within different deeper organizations.
Is there no basis for choosing between such alternatives? Or reason to do so? One good reason is the regularity with which forms and backgrounds map onto one another (Smith, Music Analysis, 1996). If a piece displays a clear conventional form, then it makes sense to privilege the background that most directly reflects that form – large-scale harmonic shape along with thematic reprises used to articulate this shape. We need only be deliberative and systematic in fleshing out the form/background correlation; in the case of the Haendel Air, the harmonic shape (first section open, modulating to V) and the absence of a tonic articulating reprise suggests that, of the several backgrounds that can fit this piece, the ^8-line works best as a starting point for its analysis.