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Swiss musicologist and music theorist of Austrian birth.

Career and Output

Kurth studied music history at Vienna University under Guido Adler, completing his doctorate in 1908 with a dissertation on Gluck's operatic style. After a period as a conductor, and as a teacher at the Freie Schulgemeinde Wickersdorf, he took his Habilitation in Bern in 1912 with a dissertation entitled Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik und der tonalen Darstellungssysteme [The Requirements for a Theory of Harmony and Systems of Tonal Representation] (published Bern: Max Drechsel, 1913). He was appointed a Privatdozent in 1920, and from 1927 to his death held the chair in musicology.

Between 1917 and 1931 he produced four substantial and highly influential books, in which he drew upon the ideas of Schopenhauer, Bergson, and Freud in examining Bach's counterpoint, Wagner's harmonic style, and Bruckner's music from a cognitive point of view, harnessing for musical purposes the concepts of kinetic energy (in melody) and potential energy (in chords):

  • Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts: Einführung in Stil und Technik von Bach's melodischer Polyphonie [Foundations of Linear Counterpoint: Introduction to Style and Technique in Bach's Melodic Counterpoint] (Bern: Max Drechsel, 1917; Berlin: Max Hesse, 1922)
  • Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners "Tristan" [Romantic Harmony and its Crisis in Wagner's "Tristan"] (Bern & Leipzig: P. Haupt, 1920; Berlin: Max Hesse, 1922)
  • Bruckner, 2 vols (Berlin: Max Hesse, 1925)
  • Musikpsychologie [Music Psychology] (Berlin: Max Hesse, 1931)

Kurth and Schenker

Schenker had a low opinion of Kurth's work (e. g. "What child would not see, exactly as does Kurth, that these notes (in Bach) ascend, these descend, but child and Kurth must say why only up to this height, this depth." DLA 69.930/12, April 3, 1924).


  • Rothfarb, Lee A., Ernst Kurth as Theorist and Analyst (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988)
  • Rothfarb, Lee A., Ernst Kurth: Selected Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)


  • Marko Deisinger and Ian Bent

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  • OJ 15/16, [35] Handwritten letter from Weisse to Schenker, dated May 5, 1918

    Weisse reports his renewed interest in counterpoint through the rereading of the first volume of Schenker's Kontrapunkt; he has also come across Bussler's Freier Satz and has heard mainly positive things about Ernst Kurth's Linearer Kontrapunkt, a book which he will order and report on to his teacher.

  • OJ 10/1, [52] Handwritten letter from Dahms to Schenker, dated June 9, 1920

    Reflecting on the difficulty of finding housing and provisions, and on the recent German federal elections, Dahms asks whether mastery of chorale and fugue is to be obtained solely by exercises in the manner of [E. F.] Richter and others. — He inquires whether Schenker knows Kurth's Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts, and whether there are any worthwhile [musical] people in Salzburg.

  • OJ 10/1, [55] Handwritten letter from Dahms to Schenker, dated July 30, 1920

    Dahms finds the Berlin musicians on vacation to be ignorant – "artistic bolshevism." — He now understands Kurth's work better for Schenker's comments.

  • OJ 6/7, [3] Handwritten letter from Schenker to Moriz Violin, dated May 6, 1922

    This wide-ranging letter describes the difficulties encountered with Emil Hertzka at Universal Edition, concerning an attack on the music critic Paul Bekker planned for the "Miscellanea" of Tonwille 2. — He expresses his displeasure with Weisse for putting his success as a composer in the way of aiding his teacher's cause, and for exploiting his teacher's generosity. — Ends with generous praise for Violin's musicianship.

  • OJ 10/1, [72] Handwritten letter from Dahms to Schenker, dated October 28, 1922

    Dahms chooses to remain in Italy in view of the "moral and physical devastation" that he hears reported from Germany. — He is committed to Schust & Loeffler for a Haydn biography. He reports on a review of his book "Offenbarung."

  • OJ 6/7, [6] Handwritten letter from Heinrich Schenker to Moriz Violin, dated July 20, 1923

    Schenker describes his efforts to make Der Tonwille more widely read, through its distribution by his pupils and its display in music shop windows. He needs more help from pupils and friends with the dissemination of his work, but complains that Hans Weisse has let him down on more than one occasion by not writing about his work. Finally, he asks Violin’s advice about whether he should accept an invitation to speak at a conference in Leipzig, or whether he should simply stay at home and continue to write.

  • OC 12/7-9 Handwritten letter from Halm to Schenker dated November 6‒10, 1923

    Halm has sent the published score of a string quartet to Schenker. —Patronage has enabled him to publish three volumes of compositions; reports on current and past composition activities and publications. —Discusses what he has learned from Schenker's theories, and questions whether it would be a fault were Bruckner's symphonies not to contain the Urlinie; Halm's book on Bruckner's symphonies has gone into its second edition. —Halm suspects that Schenker may not "agree with" his compositions, and asks whether Schenker wishes to receives further scores. —Halm considers socialism a "historical necessity."

  • DLA 69.930/12 Handwritten letter from Schenker to Halm, dated April 3‒4, 1924

    In response to matters raised by Halm in two previous letters, Schenker discusses figuration, distinguishing between that which works only on the surface and that which arises out of the middle and background, drawing on primal intervals. He also concedes that he heard Bruckner improvising, and criticizes it adversely. He refers to Reger, and outlines plans for forthcoming volumes of Der Tonwille.

  • OC 12/15-17 Handwritten letter from Halm to Schenker dated April 7, April 14, and May 6, 1924]

    Halm again asks Schenker to point out an instance of non-genius in his [Halm's] music. — Has long believed that foreground (= corporeality) has been neglected at the expense of background (= spirituality) in music. — Defends Kurth against Schenker's critical remarks. — Suggests an explanation for the Bruckner classroom incident. — Will send parts of his [A major] String Quartet and promises a copy of his "Von Grenzen und Ländern". — Accepts offer of assistance with publication costs. — Comments on Reger.

  • OJ 6/7, [18] Handwritten letter from Schenker to Moriz Violin, dated February 22, 1925

    Schenker thanks Violin for his recent letter (and enclosure), which contains evidence of Hertzka's false calculations of subscriptions to Der Tonwille – this letter in stark contrast to the actions of his pupils Weisse and Brünauer, who had given more support to the publication of Weisse's recently published vocal quartets than to his writings. Leaving Der Tonwille behind, which has earned him little money and caused him much misery, he has written a lengthy study of Bach's solo violin works, which will be published in the first volume of Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, which will include a critique of Ernst Kurth's Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts.

  • OJ 6/7, [19] Handwritten letter from Schenker to Moriz Violin, dated April 10, 1925

    Continuing the story of the ongoing financial battle against Hertzka and Universal Edition, Schenker thanks Violin for providing confirmation of the subscriptions paid for by Max Temming, then recounts that, at a meeting with Hertzka and his bookkeeper, the order-book for Der Tonwille had several pages torn out. Schenker is upset that his lawyer Dr. Baumgarten, though an old friend, is not fully supportive of his position and would prefer seek a compromise with Hertzka; this, Schenker feels, would rob him of much of his hard-earned royalties, especially from the Beethoven sonata edition. He now asks Violin to find a contact – outside Hamburg – who would be willing to order nine copies of Tonwille 1, as evidence that this issue is still in demand, despite Hertzka's claims to the contrary. He has attended a performance of Hans Weisse's Sextet, of which he found the variation movement and the trio section of the scherzo to be the most satisfactory parts.

  • OJ 10/1, [91] Handwritten letter from Dahms to Schenker, dated December 1, 1925

    The [Hammer] mezzotint has arrived; Dahms expresses a reservation about it. — He has been writing for Die Musik. — He succeeded in getting compensation from UE.

  • OJ 5/17, [1, vsn 1] Handwritten draft letter from Schenker to Hindemith, undated [November 3, 1926]

    In response to Hindemith's letter of October 25, 1926, Schenker's 15-page first draft states his preference for a meeting with Hindemith in Vienna. Schenker thinks differently from Hindemith: the notion of a "good musician" is a delusion; artistic property is comparable with material property; the music of today is quite different from that of the past, the rules of the masterworks do not govern it, hence it is not art at all. Schenker reserves the right to speak his own mind.

  • OJ 14/45, [71] Handwritten letter from Moriz Violin to Schenker, dated July 18, 1928

    Owing to a "complete breakdown," Violin is recovering at a sanatorium in Schierke, from where he writes. In response to Schenker's previous postcard, Violin had written more than once to Prof. [Fritz?] Stein for the return of the manuscript of a Handel arrangement by Schenker, and he will chase him up in August. A pupil of his, Harry Hahn, has taken upon himself to lecture on Schenker's theories at the local society of composers; for this he has prepared classroom-size enlargements of voice-leading graphs of a Bach prelude and a Schubert waltz, and has proved a surprisingly competent and persuasive speaker.

  • OJ 15/16, [62] Handwritten letter from Weisse to Schenker, dated August 5, 1929

    Weisse, absorbed by Schenker's ideas (especially the concept of "tonal space") tells of his plans to write about his teacher's significance as a contemporary theorist. He describes his progress in composition, which includes the completion of a set of six bagatelles for piano and a Clarinet Quintet, and much work on an Octet. He asks about progress on Der freie Satz and about the publication of Schenker's analysis of the "Eroica" Symphony, and reports his and Hertha's joy in parenthood.

  • OC 54/298 Typewritten letter from Furtwängler to Schenker, dated May 30, 1930

    Furtwängler is angry at Straube's reply, and may sound out Max Hesse — He has resigned his Vienna position.

  • OJ 12/6, [16] Handwritten letter from Jonas to Schenker, dated October 1, 1932

    Further on Hoboken and the number of subscriptions; Jonas thanks Schenker for approving an article about the Photogrammarchiv that he hopes will be published in Die Musik.

  • OJ 12/6, [18] Handwritten letter from Jonas to Schenker, dated December 15, 1932

    Jonas comments on Schenker's article in Der Kunstwart; reports conversation with Furtwängler; would like to write something on Handel-Brahms Saul; has heard nothing further from van Hoboken.

  • OJ 9/34, [42] Handwritten letter from Cube to Schenker, dated October 4, 1934

    Quotes letter from Furtwängler in extenso touching on reasons for dismissal and articulating the importance of Schenker's theory; Cube describes the impact of this letter on his Director. The names of Schenker, Halm, and Kurth were deleted from a recent text of his, and censorship has been imposed. Describes his own recent activities. Outlines his geometric theory of the diatonic components of tonality. Encloses photograph of his wife and son; describes hardships. Denies rumors that he has cheated Moriz Violin, and refers to the resulting backlash on him: Violin has a "complex", feels downtrodden by everyone.

  • OJ 12/6, [40] Handwritten letter from Jonas to Schenker, dated December 19, 1934

    Jonas encloses a translation of an English review of his book; comments despairingly. — Lawsuit against Willi Reich comes to court on December 22. — Jonas hopes to give lectures in Vienna. —Asks if Schenker knows Carl Johann Perl. —Holiday good wishes.