Schenker's Conception of Sonata Form before the Urlinie: History, Theory, and Aesthetics

Jason Hooper (University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA)

Schenker famously dismissed nineteenth-century theories of sonata form in Free Composition (1935), replacing those approaches with one based on an interrupted fundamental structure and its elaboration. However, in his analyses dating before the first published mention of the Urlinie in 1921, Schenker employed a more traditional theory of form. This theory was intended to support larger historical and aesthetic claims: Schenker believed a long period of musical decline followed after the death of Beethoven—a period marked by the advent of program music, Wagner’s music dramas, Bruckner’s symphonies, and the reification of “form” by theorists such as A.B. Marx and Hugo Riemann. The inability of nineteenth-century composers to write sonata-form movements that displayed the same mastery of compositional technique found in works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was emblematic of this decline.

To make these broad claims, Schenker needed a working theory of sonata form (or what he called “cyclic form”) to discern the compositional mastery of the genius from the technical shortcomings of the non-genius. This paper reconstructs his theory, beginning with the combination of motives into periods and groups, followed by the disposition of themes within a three-part exposition. Special consideration is given to the different ways the first and second themes may relate to the transition. Analyses of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and Haydn’s string quartets are used to illustrate these ideas.

By rehabilitating his early Formenlehre, we are given a new context to reconsider Schenker’s late work and its relationship to more recent theories of form.

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