(born June 19, 1868, Wisniowczyk, Galicia, Russia—died Jan. 14, 1935, Vienna, Austria) Austrian music theorist. Schenker studied law and composition in Vienna before settling there as a private teacher and occasional performer. He proposed that Jean-Philippe Rameau's harmonic theory had erred in making harmony fundamental at the expense of counterpoint. His own study of C.P.E. Bach led him to posit counterpoint as equally fundamental and to recognize the subtle integration of the two. Schenker's most influential perception was that tonal music consists of layers of ornamentation of simpler musical statements. His controversial theories and graphic notation—presented in texts such as Harmony (1906), Counterpoint (1910–22), and Free Composition (1935)—were widely disseminated in the 1970s and by the end of the 20th century had become the basis of the most widely employed analytical techniques for tonal music.
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Schenker was born in Wisniowczyki in Galicia in Austria-Hungary (now Ternopil oblast, Ukraine). His musical talent was recognized early on, and at the age of 13 he was sent to study with Carl Mikuli, a student of Frédéric Chopin, in Lemberg (now Lviv). He moved to Vienna where he studied music under Anton Bruckner and became known as a pianist, accompanying lieder singers and playing chamber music. He taught piano and music theory privately, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, Anthony van Hoboken, Felix Salzer, and Hans Wolf were among his pupils.
Schenker's ideas on analysis were first explored in his Harmony (Harmonielehre, 1906) and Counterpoint (Kontrapunkt, 2 vols., 1910 and 1922), and were developed in the two journals he published, Der Tonwille (1921-24) and Das Meisterwerk in der Musik (1925-30), both of which included content exclusively by Schenker. Schenker regarded his analyses as tools to be used by performers for a deeper understanding of the works they were performing. This is demonstrated by his editions of Ludwig van Beethoven's late piano sonatas, which also include analyses of the works.
In 1932, Schenker published Five Graphic Music Analyses (Fünf Urlinie-Tafeln), analyses of five works using the analytical technique of showing layers of greater and lesser musical detail that now bears his name. Following Schenker's death, his incomplete theoretical work Free Composition (Der freie Satz, 1935) was published (first translated into English by T. H. Kreuger in 1960 as a dissertation at the University of Iowa; a second, better translation, by Ernst Oster, was published in 1979). Some English translations of his work have deleted passages that could be considered politically incorrect and irrelevant to the topic. For example, in the Preface to Counterpoint Schenker writes that "the man ranks above the woman, the producer is superior to the merchant or laborer, the head prevails over the foot," etc.
Other music theorists, for example Felix Salzer and Carl Schachter, both added to and disseminated Schenker's ideas: by the 1960s Schenkerian analysis had begun to attract renewed interest, and by the 1980s it had become one of the main analytical methods used by many North American music theorists. While his theories have been increasingly challenged since mid-century for their rigidity and organicist ideology, the wider analytical tradition that they inspired has remained central to the study of tonal music.