David Byrne

From Function to Transformation: Sigfrid Karg-Elert as Proto-Neo-Riemannian

In two treatises published in 1930 and 1931, German composer-theorist Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) greatly extended the system of harmonic function presented in Hugo Riemann’s Harmony Simplified of 1893.  While Riemann’s published functional analyses are mostly limited to Bach and Beethoven, Karg-Elert’s writings apply the concept of function to chromatic music from Schubert to Debussy.  His transformations of the three basic functions encompass the gamut of chromatic relations, including mediant relationships often modelled today using neo-Riemannian transformations.  Karg-Elert’s theories remain conceptually rooted in tonality; in contrast, neo-Riemannian transformations operate freely from tonal context, without regard for function.  In this paper, I discuss how Karg-Elert often employs functional transformations in distinctly neo-Riemannian ways.  He highlights common-tone retention when explaining his transformations, prefiguring the neo-Riemannian focus on voice-leading parsimony (especially in the work of Richard Cohn).  He combines multiple transformations in order to model specific harmonic relationships, analogous to the use of composite neo-Riemannian operations such as PR or LPR.  Finally, in Karg-Elert’s analyses the gravitational force of tonality is frequently trumped by the paths defined by the surface-level transformations.  Nonetheless, function as a model of harmonic identity and order does remains effective in his work.  To help elucidate the relationship between function and transformation in Karg-Elert, I distinguish between ‘function-retaining transformations’ (which retain certain pitch connections with a function’s principal triad) and ‘function-changing transformations’ (in which such pitch connections are negated).  In turn, I propose that neo-Riemannian transformations, which are normally defined without reference to function, can also be classified in a similar manner.  I examine Karg-Elert’s analyses of passages by Brahms, Elgar and Strauss, in order to test the boundaries of function retention, and to highlight how Karg-Elert’s work presents significant connections with neo-Riemannian theory and practice.