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Väisälä, Olli

Prolongation in Early Post-Tonal Music: Analytical Examples and Theoretical Principles

Ph.D. Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, 2004
(ovaisala@siba.fi)

The studies that comprised this dissertation analyze a selection of pieces of early post-tonal music (by Debussy, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) on the basis of the notion of prolongation. They also discuss extensively the theoretical principles of post-tonal prolongation and, to some extent, the relationships of these principles with psychoacoustical phenomena.

Prolongation is a key notion in Schenkerian analysis of conventionally tonal music, and there have been various attempts to generalize this notion to meet the demands of post-tonal music. However, whereas conventional Schenkerian analysis is regulated by well-defined theoretical principles related to the normative referential position of the triad, purported prolongational analyses of post-tonal music have, in general, remained unsatisfactory, owing to the lack of comparable theoretical principles. The present studies determine such principles for the selection of works analyzed, on the basis of non-triadic referential harmonies.

The theoretical discussion draws on Joseph Straus's (1987) four conditions of prolongation, a well-known formulation of pitch-based functional norms required by prolongation. However, the approach differs from Straus's in its conception of harmonies and intervals, by incorporating aspects outside the purview of pitch-class set theory; it turns out that this decisively improves the prospects of post-tonal prolongation. Two such aspects are discussed. The first is registration; it is argued that registral distinctions (such as between certain complementary intervals) are crucial for functional distinctions in almost any kind of prolongational organization. The second-which pertains to a more limited repertoire-is rootedness, a property stemming from approximate correspondences between musical intervals and those in the harmonic series. Theoretical principles, such as these two aspects, are considered from two angles: how they illuminate the works analyzed and how they relate with perceptual (psychoacoustical) principles. In the present selection of compositions, the theoretical foundation enables the description of prolongational structures whose descriptive power is largely comparable to that of conventional Schenkerian analyses. While some of the theoretical principles are likely to have more general significance for the illumination of musical organization in comparable repertoire, only further studies can decide the extent to which this illumination actually amounts to the revelation of prolongational structures.