Duilio D'Alfonso

Unifying Schenker and Riemann

In the Schenkerian framework, harmonic progressions, at different hierarchical levels, are essentially interpreted according to the principles of functional monotonality: excluding prolongational events, each harmonic progression completing a fundamental I-V-I- structure gives raise to a structural cadence. Namely, Schenkerian theory gives an account for the cadential, functional relations between chords at different structural levels of a tonal piece. Differently, in the neo-riemannian perspective, inspired by Hugo Riemann’s theory of harmony and developed in the last decades by scholars such as David Levin, Richard Cohn and others, the so-called transformations are intended to explain harmonic progressions, mainly at the large-scale tonal plan of a piece, not reducible in terms of functional relations, but inspired by a principle of ‘parsimony’ in the voice-leading.
In this paper, I intend to argue for an analytic approach unifying these two traditions. Actually, the possibility of integrating them in a unique theoretic and analytic perspective is somewhat latent, and my purpose is to make this potentiality explicit. I will show some graphical examples, derived from scores by Mozart (Concert K 622), Beethoven (Sonatas Op. 53, 57, 106 and Symphony Nos. 7 and 9) and Brahms (Quintet Op. 34 and Symphony No. 4), in which large-scale key progressions seem to be governed by the logic of transformations, encoded by neo-riemannian theory. These key progressions are in some sense nested in the skeleton of schenkerian deep structural patterns, showing how, in structurally relevant positions, the logic of functional relations is prevailing. Summarizing, the aim of my talk is to suggest that schenkerian and neo-riemannian theories can be thought of as complementary analytic methods, formally capturing two different structural aspects of tonal harmony and its formal function, aspects playing a crucial role in the syntactic cohesion of tonal music.