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date: 29 September 2020

(p. 485) Transformation, Analysis, Criticism

It has been variously noted that neo-Riemannian theory emerged as a force to be reckoned with at exactly the time when the project of music theory and analysis in the Anglo-American academy had to parry a fundamental critique of its aims and assumptions. This is hardly a coincidence. Certain positions of neo-Riemannian theory can be seen as direct responses to the main points of criticism: tonal unity, the all-encompassing claims of analysis, and ultimately the deep connections with the idea of the musical work. It is especially these points that neo-Riemannian theory has scaled back and rethought, and it is these points, one might further add, that are most at odds with (paleo-)Riemann's own theoretical project.

As a consequence, it is rare to find neo-Riemannian theories being applied beginning to end in a piece of music. Yet some of the most powerful insights can be gained through the interaction of neo-Riemannian theories with other music-theoretical approaches. Indeed, it is the very flexibility of the approach that gives neo-Riemannian analysis its innovative strength. At the same time, a few fundamental questions have remained unanswered—or have received answers that are tailor-made to specific situations. The question of what kind of tonality, if any, neo-Riemannian theory represents has occasionally been raised. Similarly, the question of repertoire—predominantly, from Schubert to Strauss—is intriguing: do the triadic and chromatic works for which neo-Riemannian theory works best form a coherent (p. 486) repertoire of their own? The essays in this section seek to address some of these questions that lead us into the wider aesthetical realm. In addressing how ideas that originated with Riemann may respond to contemporary analytical challenges, the essays in this section open up new paths and offer suggestions for further work.

In the opening essay, Steven Rings considers a work that was the topic of Riemann's first published analysis: Schubert's triadic but highly chromatic G♭-major Impromptu. Rings compares Riemann's own analysis of the work with a neo-Riemannian view inspired by the writings of Richard Cohn, assessing the differences in analytical methodology and technology, and locating those differences within the divergent ideologies of the two approaches. Rings's central concern, however, is not with the analytical technologies themselves, but rather with the assumptions and values that underlie the distinct analytical perspectives. Rings focuses on analytical values with an eye toward synthesis: an enrichment of the neo-Riemannian perspective through an engagement with the ethical and methodological concerns of the paleo-Riemannian approach.

In the following chapter, Robert Cook performs a virtuosic hermeneutic analysis of César Franck's Le chasseur maudit, which serves further as an extended and elegant reflection on the potential and limitations various analytical frameworks. Cook situates his analysis with respect to notions of chromatic music, in particular the idea that chromaticism poses analytical difficulties that Riemannian and neo-Riemannian perspectives are particularly well suited to address. After considering the work from both functional and linear perspectives and examining the conceptual problems that attend each, Cook illustrates how a contextual, neo-Riemannian view can capture the work's salient gestures, and offers a balance between a desire to understand the work as a reflection of an orderly, conceptually coherent relational system and the need to engage the aural experience of the music.

Daniel Harrison closes this part of the book with a three-section essay, exploring certain interrelated themes and questions central to the transformational and neo-Riemannian enterprise. Part one problematizes the natures of musical objects and relations within the transformational worldview, and asks what happens when we try to imagine tones and chords not as objects but as transformations, the products of movement, or—to employ more Kurthian language—not as sensuous but as energetic entities. Harrison delves further into the object/transformation dichotomy in the second section, deftly exploring the structural and functional differences among dissonant and consonant trichords in a particular nonatonic cycle. The essay, a fantasy on a variety of speculative and historical themes, explores how voice-leading, functional, and set-theoretical implications of the cycle might be profitably engaged by a transformational perspective as a means to impart “sensuous distinctions” among otherwise indifferent transformations. The third section investigates the analytical ramifications of the first two sections. Vaughan Williams’ neo-modal, triadic Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis provides the soil in which these considerations can take root.