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Unpublished work by Schenker, completed around 1907.

Content

Its full provisional title is "Über den Niedergang der Kompositionskunst: eine technisch-kritische Untersuchung" ("The Decline of the Art of Composition: A Technical-Critical Study"). The text is continuous, without chapter headings or paragraph numbers, but divides broadly into two parts: a study of what the masters – the Viennese classical composers, followed by Mendelssohn and Brahms – achieved in large-scale (“cyclic”) forms, and a quasi-historical account of the “decline” in the 19th century through the line of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. In the introductory pages, Schenker extols the productivity of the masters; in the final pages he charts the further demise at the hands of Bruckner, Wolf, and Richard Strauss. At the center of the essay, the discussion of Wagner’s shortcomings as a composer is contained within a general critique of opera as a hybrid genre; the exceptional genius of Mozart is explored here in analyses of three numbers from Don Giovanni.

History of the Project

"Niedergang" began life as a projected 5,000-word "Nachwort" (Afterword) to Schenker's Harmonielehre (1906), its intention being to provide a glimpse of his view of what the masters achieved beyond what could be demonstrated in a theoretical discussion of harmony. However, it increased in size so greatly that Schenker first asked his publishers to consider issuing it as part of a Harmonielehre split into two volumes; after this request was refused (see correspondence with J. G. Cotta), he reconceived it as an independent piece of writing, for a long time envisioned as volume III of the Neue Musikalische Theorien und Phantasien. The work was never published in its own right, though Schenker mentions it as forthcoming as late as 1923, in the fifth issue of Der Tonwille.

The principal source for "Niedergang" is an edited typescript, OC 31/28–153. An earlier, handwritten draft of the first part of the essay is preserved elsewhere in Schenker's papers: OC B/48–77, which bears the heading “Einiges zur Synthese des Ganzen” (“Remarks on the Synthesis of the Whole”).

Bibliography:

  • Drabkin, William, "Schenker’s 'Decline': An Introduction," Music Analysis xxiv/1‒2 (March‒July 2005), 3–31
  • Drabkin, William, ed., transcr., & transl., "Heinrich Schenker: Über den Niedergang der Kompositionskunst: eine technisch-kritische Untersuchung," Music Analysis xxiv/1‒2 (March‒July 2005), 131–231; "Heinrich Schenker: The Decline of the Art of Composition: A Technical-Critical Study," ibid, 33–129 (Engl. transl.)
  • Private communication from Nicholas Marston

Contributor:

  • William Drabkin

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