The Schenker Project: Culture, Race and Music Theory in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.  Nicolas Cook.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007. xi + 355 pp.  ISBN 978-0-1997-4429-9

Reviewed by Alison Rose

The cultural developments of fin-de-siècle Vienna have been the subject of several historical monographs. Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna, originally published in 1973, was followed by Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture in 1980. Works by Marsha Rozenblit, Steven Beller, and Robert Wistrich focused attention on the Jews of Vienna, emphasizing the importance of the Jewish contribution to Viennese culture. One thing that these works hold in common is their inclusion of Viennese Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and omission of his contemporary, Viennese Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker.  This is all the more perplexing when one considers how influential Schenkerian theory was to become in the United States. Schenker, unlike Schoenberg, did not convert to Christianity: he remained a loyal (if concealed) Jew throughout his life, and he somewhat oddly seems to have embraced both his Jewishness and German nationalism.  Nicolas Cook’s book provides some hints as to how this worldview developed, and more importantly, it restores Schenker to his rightful place in fin-de-siècle Viennese culture. However, the book falls short of accounting for the rather peculiar omission of Schenker from most previous studies on the period.

In all fairness, Cook writes from the perspective of a music theorist for an audience of music theorists. Therefore he aims to better contextualize Schenker’s contribution to music theory by relating it to Schenker’s views of politics, philosophy, literature, religion, and culture; he does not try to frame Schenker’s life as a means for better understanding the predicament facing Viennese Jews. Cook begins by describing Schenker’s origins in Galicia, where he was born in 1868. When he went to Vienna to study law in 1884, Schenker was an outsider; and for much of his life he worked toward integrating himself into German musical culture. According to Cook, the fragmented cultural topography of Austria and Vienna—that is, the diverse mixture of nations and people in the Habsburg Monarchy and its capital—demanded reconciliation of its cultures, nationalities, and ethnicities. Given the Viennese tradition of associating music and social structure, Cook argues, music can provide a model for explaining how this reconciliation took place. The process is reflected, Cook claims, in Schenker’s theory’s articulation of “the way in which absolute instrumental music expresses such mutual abrasion or reconciliation between individual interests, or between the interests of individual and state” (13).  Cook also sees “the Hegelian concept of sublation, the subsumption of opposed entities within a higher unity, as central to Schenker’s thought…. It is a key to understanding how Schenker’s theory is not just a theory of music but a theory of society—or to put it another way, not just a theory but a project” (14). Cook’s introduction also provides an overview of Schenker’s biography and a sketch of political developments in Vienna from the 1890s with the presumption that these developments are reflected in his works (23).

In each chapter, Cook explores a different historical context for Schenker’s work and he moves more or less chronologically through Schenker’s writings.  Chapter one looks at the philosophical context by thoroughly examining the influences of German and Austrian philosophical traditions in Schenker’s key early text, “Der Geist der musikalischen Technik” (The Spirit of Musical Technique, 1895, completely revised from the 1988 translation by William Pastille and reprinted in the Appendix). Cook points out that Schenker rejected the superficiality of the musical culture of his day, understood genius as a force of nature, and embraced a narrative of decline that privileged German music over the music of other nations and races. Cook links this line of thinking to Richard Wagner’s 1878 essay “Was ist deutsch?” (“What is German?”) and the political developments in Vienna confronting Schenker, including the rise of the anti-Semitic Christian Social party.

In the second chapter, Cook situates Schenker in the context of modernism, focusing on the monograph-length work Ein Beitrag zur Ornamentik (A Contribution to the Study of Ornamentation, 1908), and portraying him as a reluctant modernist. Cook sets the idea of ornamentation into the context of Viennese modernism by examining first and second phases of Viennese modernism, from the decorative tendencies of the Secession—an association of artists formed in 1897 dedicated to innovation—to the rejection of ornamentation by the Viennese modern architect Adolf Loos, who sought to purify architecture with a style favoring austere functionality. In doing so, Cook complicates the definitions of modernism and conservatism by showing a convergence between the ideas of the “ultra-modernists” such as Loos, and the conservative Schenker. “There is in short as much modernism in Schenker’s conservatism as there is conservatism in Loos’s, Schoenberg’s, and Kraus’s modernism” (129).

The context of cultural conservatism is the subject of chapter three, which focuses on Schenker’s first article of the first issue of Tonville (The Will of Tones), “Von der Sendung des deutschen Genies” (The Mission of German Genius, 1921).  This essay describes German culture as superior and condemns Germany’s “enemies” along racist lines, referring for example to the “filthy French” and “the ignominy of [France’s] black troops—the advance party of its genitalitis, of the flesh of its flesh, of the cannibal spirit of its spirit” (147).  Cook poses the disturbing question of how to deal with a text that is “designed to incite hatred, sometimes of a specifically racial nature” and which circulates rumors such as the “‘stab in the back,’ the secret documents showing that the French and English started the war” (147). One wonders if Schenker’s sympathy with extreme right-wing movements could begin to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this review.  Could Schenker’s embrace of German nationalism, at times bordering on racism, have led to his virtual exclusion from the contemporary scholarship on fin-de-siècle Vienna? Although Cook correctly points out that politics in German-speaking countries of the early twentieth century do not conform to our notions of politics today, I find it somewhat troubling to conclude, as Cook does, that Schenker’s initial support for fascism and praise for Hitler is excusable because “accusations of support for the wrong side are therefore all too likely to be oversimplified as well as informed by hindsight” (151). Cook does not deny that Schenker’s political views were extreme; but at the same he seeks to justify them as connected to his understanding of the universe as hierarchical, and as rooted in cultural nationalism rather than political nationalism (159).

Whereas chapter three might be said to portray the German side of Schenker, chapter four explores his Jewish side.  Cook posits that Schenker’s work is influenced by Judaism and may be seen in a sense as “Talmudic” (210). Moreover, he draws a connection between musical analysis, psychoanalysis, and Talmudic reasoning, in that all three look beyond the surface for concealed meanings (212). But Cook also correctly points out the problems inherent in this relational approach: it is too easy to claim certain general traits as rooted in Judaism, and too difficult to prove Schenker’s familiarity with Jewish tradition. On the other hand, he demonstrates that Schenker referred to his Jewish identity in positive ways in his diaries even as he concealed it in public. Cook concludes this chapter by comparing Schenker to two of his “most significant others,” Wagner and Schoenberg, German anti-Semite and Zionist Jew. He argues that Schenker forged much of his thinking through opposition to or appropriation of Wagner’s thinking, and, unlike Schoenberg, “never had a moment of truth in which he rediscovered his Jewish identity, presumably because he never forgot it in the first place” (244).

The final chapter offers an analysis of Schenker’s last work Der freie Satz (Free Composition), which was published posthumously in 1935. Cook’s reading rejects the first generation Schenkerians’ assessment of the work as the summit of Schenker’s thought. Instead, Cook argues, despite Schenker’s own self-image as an unrecognized genius, and his appreciation by his own contemporaries, his ideas were excised from musical discourses during the Third Reich. “And after the war, Schenker’s rabid nationalism worked against the kind of rehabilitation Schoenberg enjoyed” in Europe (275). Therefore “the story of the posthumous Schenker was an almost exclusively North American one” (275), with theorists transforming Schenker’s theory into a depoliticized, American, postmodern form. Cook’s argument suggests that context is important in order to fully appreciate Schenker’s writings.

Cook’s book succeeds in its aim of situating Schenker’s work in its various historical contexts. At times his reading tends towards apologetics, but his construction of the Schenker project reveals that there is much more than a theory of music to Schenker’s thought. In doing so Cook adds to our understanding of music theory and fin de siècle Viennese politics and culture.

Alison Rose, University of Rhode Island