by Edwin K. C. Li


In this article, I suggest that music theory, currently not being on the radar of ecomusicology, can offer ecomusicology a critical awareness of and sensibility to our relationship with nature itself that is neither apocalyptic nor nostalgic (Rehding 2011), but conceptual. Rather than merely asking questions about how we, as music scholars, respond to natural crises and how music relates to nature (Allen 2011, 392), we might also benefit from an eco–music theoretical viewpoint to fundamentally question what nature and music theory do and mean: Is nature the problem in, or the solution to, music theory? Why is musical logic always grounded in nature, when logic itself ought to be self-grounding? In music theory, what can nature be and why is it significant? In this article, I attempt to answer these questions by discussing the dialectic of nature in Hugo Riemann’s (1849–1919) and Heinrich Schenker’s (1868–1935) music theories. I argue that nature can be the reason of and the solution to their political crisis, that is, to monumentalize their theories in history, and to enable history to progress in modernity. I conclude by suggesting that this case study reminds us that human domination over nature has long operated on a conceptual plane, and that ecomusicology can respond to this conceptual Anthropocene by embracing the multiplicities of meaning of nature.

Pastoral images on Hugo Riemann's tombstone.

Pastoral images on Hugo Riemann’s tombstone in Leipzig. File:Leipzig-suedfriedhof-riemann.jpg” by A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In the field-defining book, Current Directions in Ecomusicology: Music, Culture, Nature (2016), one can hardly locate the footprints of music theory. This is understandable, however, because ecomusicology, according to Aaron Allen (2011, 392), “considers the relationships of music, culture, and nature…It is the study of musical and sonic issues, both textual and performative, as they relate to ecology and the environment.” James Rhys Edwards (2016, 153), similarly, defines ecomusicology as the “critical reflection upon music and sound, set against the backdrop of [the] epochal environmental crisis.” But in music theory, nature is quiet and cold. It does not have a voice (cf. Austern 2001; Cook 2017). It is “a knowable or unknowable entity” to be embodied, to be represented, to be incorporated (Rehding and Clark 2001, 13). Music theory, it seems, has carved out its own disciplinary space in which nature is always historicized as figures, as concepts, as instruments, detached from the natural environment and pressing environmental crises. “Nature” in music theory may thus seem extraneous to ecomusicology.

Yet in this article, I suggest that music theory can offer ecomusicology a critical awareness of and sensibility to our relationship with nature itself that is neither apocalyptic nor nostalgic (Rehding 2011), but conceptual. Rather than merely asking questions about how we, as music scholars, respond to natural crises and how music relates to nature (Allen 2011, 392), we might also benefit from an eco–music theoretical viewpoint to fundamentally question what nature and music theory do and mean: Is nature the problem in, or the solution to, music theory? Why is musical logic always grounded in nature, when logic itself ought to be self-grounding? In music theory, what can nature be and why is it significant? In this article, I attempt to answer these questions by discussing the dialectic of nature in Hugo Riemann’s (1849–1919) and Heinrich Schenker’s (1868–1935) music theories. I argue that nature can be the reason of and the solution to their political crisis, that is, to monumentalize their theories in history, and to enable history to progress in modernity. I conclude by suggesting that this case study reminds us that human domination over nature has long operated on a conceptual plane, and that ecomusicology can respond to this conceptual Anthropocene by embracing the multiplicities of meaning of nature.

Nature as History

In understanding Riemann’s musical logic, Alexander Rehding stresses the importance on the triumvirate of nature, history, and logic. For Rehding (2003, 92) Riemann utilizes history as a category to provide for his theory a unity with variety, a “progress of the unchangeable.” Riemann normalizes the diversions in history along the path to the ultimate natural laws, and by so doing he demonstrates that the variegated history of music theory possesses only a single responsibility, that is, to uncover the primordial law in all ages (Rehding 2003, 91, 93). As Riemann writes in Geschichte der Musiktheorie:

For twenty-five years I have worked diligently to develop the natural laws of harmonic succession…I have surveyed the theorists of all ages as far as they were available to me and have dug up many a grain of gold, which seemed to me worth the effort of recoining. In many cases I have also been pleased to find retrospectively that ideas which came to me independently had already been thought out by others before me (but again forgotten) (Riemann [1898] 1921, 529).

Yet Riemann is not interested in the history of music theory per se, but the accumulative power of history as a whole to substantiate his own theory. One commentator of Riemann regards Riemann’s understanding of nature as “a physis, which is at the same time logos (reason)” (Anon. 1975, 485). The Greek word physis (which is often translated as “nature” in English) has a broad range of meaning. It implies “to live (at), dwell, remain, be,” but also, on the other hand, “to grow, to become” (Lewis 1967, 34). This contradiction manifests a pre-Socratic belief as to the coalescent and accumulative power of history that reveals a dynamic nature. Perhaps what the commentator states is not a Riemannian view of an equivalence between nature and logic, but, by choosing the loaded word physis, he posits that Riemann sees nature as a dynamic construct that is both logic and history. It is reasonable to surmise that Riemann favors such a view because seeing nature as history (rather than as something that is unable to progress) was considered to be a scientific progress in the age of romanticism (Toulmin and Goodfield 1965, 129). The dynamic nature, in Jane Bennett’s words, has “a generative power to produce, organize and enliven matter” (2010, 80). In this way, Riemann can endow history with a validatory power to substitute nature in corroborating his musical logic, for what the predecessors have contributed to is the same discovery process of the truth of nature.

If we place Riemann among his Romantic contemporaries, Riemann’s view is by no means singular, nor is it his purely solipsistic idea. A marked example is Walter Pater’s description of Mona Lisa:

All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias (Pater 1986, 150).

Pater’s characterization of Mona Lisa is a sublimation of history, a moment where Hegelian dialectic is at play. For Pater the painting goes beyond its ossified singularity and epitomizes history, which then helps reveal itself as the unchangeable. Riemann, likewise, does not merely superimpose normativity on music theory by presenting a prototype of musical logic (see, for example, Mooney 2000). Instead, he celebrates, like Pater, the rich historical baggage of musical logic that culminates in a moment. This can be easily misunderstood, not least when he implies, in his Geschichte der Musiktheorie, that it is his responsibility to fulfill an ontological vacuum which was then wanting in music theory (Haggh 1974, 304).

This is not to say, however, that Riemann reduces music theory to musical logic, or even to nature. Rather, by seeing nature as history, Riemann shows that nature has to particularize itself to embrace the legitimization from the dynamic history. In this way, Riemann does not comprehend nature from a synchronic and perhaps futuristic perspective, but rather from an Adornian view whereby nature, being the unchangeable, is the epitome of the changeable, and is subject to the “emergence of the qualitatively new” (Smith 2013, 29).

Nature is thus an unstable object. Riemann understands nature as part of a historical trajectory along which these historical antecedents do not, as in Pater’s description of Mona Lisa, dialectically converge, but contribute to mere historical richness. Riemann says,

It would be foolish to attach great significance to my independent reformulation in such cases, but I consider the proof highly significant that ideas which contain a truth flare up again and again until they can no longer be kept down (Riemann [1899] 1921, 529).

Riemann does not imply here that his theory is the pre-determined truth of all music at all times, but that it contains a snippet of the ultimate truth, and in particular an incontestable one (nature), is sufficient for his theory to endure historical decay. Moreover, nature, when seen as history, is a pretext for Riemann to base his theories on multiple, at times contradictory, principles, especially in his later career. As Suzannah Clark (1997, 86) points out, “The various founding principles—mathematics, acoustics, metaphysics, and psychology— were, he [Riemann] argued, part of a historical trajectory towards discovering the truth about the construction of the major-minor system.” It is precisely by traversing a multitude of principles that Riemann, as we shall see, is able to monumentalize his theory in modernity.

Standing on the Present

Seeing nature as history, moreover, implies that nature is temporal. How Riemann preserves nature as a means of justification of his theory is to situate it in the present. As Benjamin Steege (2011, 56) points out, Riemann situates his theoretical project “in a temporal orientation that projects into future a feeling of present responsibility to shape that future.” This responsibility, as discussed, is to discover the ultimate laws of nature. As Riemann states at the end of “The Nature of Harmony”:

If I succeed in carrying the harmonic theory I have sketched here forward into a complete system, the theory of harmony will become a true exercise in musical thought, for it moves from the simplest itself to the more complicated and induces on to attempt something new, to venture, rather than, as hitherto, to seek something new (Steege 2011, 56).

Steege  (2011, 64–65) argues that the difference between “venture” and “seek” lies in that the former denotes the role of a “discoverer,” the latter of a “creator”. For Steege (ibid) Riemann’s creation of the “new,” however, is not that which is novel, but “rather an element of a perpetually recurrent temporal structure…to vivify the way in which Riemann might share a historical moment with his immediate predecessors even as he claims to supersede them.” Understanding Steege’s argument in light of our ongoing discussion, we can perhaps put it another way: Riemann situates nature in a “thick” present that is recurrently new. Nature, for Riemann, is constantly construed in the present against the past, at the same time sheds new light on the past and future, awaiting new discoveries. Nature is, as such, a constant re-codification of history and future.

The historical trajectory for Riemann to uncover the eternal truth in music is therefore a broadly temporal one, for his endeavors create a persistently changing past, present, and future, as well as a forever self-readjusting nature. This way, we come to understand what Riemann ([1898] 1921, 529) really means when he claims, “ideas…flare up again and again until they can no longer be kept down.” To the extent that the present is so fleeting and emergent, it is the constantly renewed nature that shores up the fragility of the present.

We can find striking similarities between Riemann and Schenker as regards their emphasis on the present. Before delving into that, however, it is important to establish the background of Schenker’s take on nature and temporality because the reason why Schenker has to rely on the present is, as it will surface later, different from that of Riemann.

Schenker discriminates history. Robert Morgan, for example, asserts that Schenker has to sacrifice history in order that his theory could subsist. For Morgan Schenker’s mature views on music history are largely restricted and selective. Schenker, argues Morgan, pays a high price for his claiming “universality”: he has to seal off history. Morgan (2002, 252) characterizes Schenker’s theory as such: “It is a theory conceived by someone who, no longer part of the world theorized, is on the outside looking in.” Schenker, in this sense, is theorizing his own history like Riemann. Leslie Blasius (1996) similarly points out that Schenker’s conception of music history is a finite culminating history. Schenker writes a history that ends; or perhaps it can be said, he ends history.

No wonder Cook argues that Schenker is anti-history. This does not mean that Schenker is writing against history itself, but he rejects its being a teleological product. He looks for something immovable and absolute that objectifies and eternalizes his theory: the transcendental Nature. He writes:

The superior force of truth — of Nature, as it were — is at work mysteriously behind his [a man of genius’s] consciousness, guiding his pen, without caring in the least whether the happy artist himself wanted to do the right thing or not. If he had his way in following his conscious intentions, the result, alas! would often be a miserable composition. But, fortunately, that mysterious power arranges everything for the best (Schenker [1906] 1994, 60).

Since Schenker believes that a composer’s conscious intention is irrelevant to a musical work, he concentrates on the musical content and seeks for objective characteristics which reveal the tenor of the natural voice. In this way, as Nicholas Cook (1993, 422) puts it bluntly, Schenker altogether abolishes history and subjectivity. As such, while Riemann embraces the dialectic of history and future, Schenker puts Nature in an all but “atemporal,” absolute realm.

Moreover, Nature plays a key role in Schenker’s mature theory in opening up endless possibilities of creating a new German epoch. Schenker ([1925] 1994, 118) has a grim vision in regard to the possibility of a new musical genius like Bach and Beethoven when he writes the first volume of The Masterwork in Music [Das Meisterwerk in der Musik]. He says: “Rather than speculating on the genius that is to come, one would do better to concentrate on the genius that was.” Yet in Free Composition, Schenker ([1935] 1979, 160) turns this view on its head: “Just as nature will always place elephants and crocodiles, for example, where she can provide their life’s necessities, so she will place a Beethoven – if indeed ever again – among the German people!” That Schenker ([1925] 1994, 116) turns from history to a potential future may be down to his realization of the unpredictable, generative, almost imposing power of nature: “the history of mankind teaches us that as a whole man cares nothing about spirit…in all his discoveries, man falls back upon the forces of Nature.”

While our discussion thus far seems to lead us to a happy conclusion that Schenker is anti-history and forward-looking, this flatly contradicts his theory. By looking at his theory of linear progressions, for example, we can witness that Schenker does not merely situate it in the past or future, but rather retains it in the present. As Kevin Korsyn (1988, 31) says, “The theory of linear progressions…is a theory of memory, an account of how the past is preserved in the present.” Robert Snarrenberg (1997, 68) provides an explanation for it: the consonant F in a F–E–D descending fundamental line [Urlinie] of the fundamental structure [Ursatz], for example, is negated by the passing E, but is then sublated by the consonant arrival at D. This may seem surprisingly similar to Riemann’s große Cadenz and its thesis-antithesis-synthesis Hegelian dialectic (Mooney 2000). But Schenker, unlike Riemann, is not focusing here on chordal progressions and relationships. Instead, he attends to a structural hearing process in which the past is preserved, and the future acts upon, the present.

Schenker’s focus on the present in his theory of linear progressions can be considered to be a microcosm of his broader outlook on music theory and its relation to nature. As Schenker palpably emphasizes:

The past in its entirety will live anew as the present. What has passed away in the course of millions of years will nevertheless not have perished. The geniuses of all ages will become contemporaries of all generations, will become eternal contemporaries, and an eternal life for mankind will emerge, built at long last, as the true temple of the eternal one! (Schenker [1921­–23] 2004, 19–20).

This is why Matthew Arndt (2016, 90) argues that Schenker’s theories are not set against a particular period. But as Blasius reminds us, Schenker, just as Riemann, writes his own history with regard to the nineteenth-century canon. Perhaps Schenker does not conceive this as a problem at all. The crux of the problem for Schenker is that given such freedom, music history still could not progress in the hands of the masses, for they “lack the soul of genius.” (Schenker ([1935] 1979, 3) One, Schenker ([1921–23] 2004, 19) maintains, ought to wait for the genius in the next generation to “establish once more the sum total of world consciousness,” and to “proclaim anew and substantiate the eternal same,” because the then-present generation (for example, Schoenberg), is doomed to perish. More importantly, Schenker ([1935] 1979, xxiv) associates the genius with the present: “The cultivation of genius is neither romantic nor ‘living in the past.’ Rather it is the cultivation of a contemporaneity that bridges time.” In Schenker’s envisaged new German epoch which outlasts the present, music will speak through the genius, who is both part of, and beyond, temporality, and will articulate new laws of nature.

The Two Monuments

The outlining of Riemann’s and Schenker’s common emphasis on the “presentness” in their takes on music history and theory in relation to nature, may, as Hellmut Federhofer’s (1958, 183) voice murmurs, may lead us to “completely separate directions and reach such fundamentally different results.” The commonalities between them, it seems, can only get us this far. The two theorists, to be sure, celebrate nature in quite different ways with disparate rationales. In Riemann’s case, he situates nature in the present in order to amass a wide array of principles undergirding his theory, as well as to normalize the apparent inconsistencies of traversing the principles by cloaking them under the thick “presentness” of nature. While Riemann’s concept of nature is accumulative, Schenker renders it absolute, thereby obviating the need of having a logic in itself, paving the way for the genius to outlast the present.

But just as Beethoven’s symphonies were regarded by nineteenth-century critics and Schenker himself as an eternal monument in modernity, Riemann and Schenker would like to establish their theory as such, a modern classic that, to put it paradoxically, progressively transcends time (Chua 1999, 9). More explicitly, Schenker (1919) speaks of his responsibility for creating his own monument in history: “it…remain[s] ‘my cause’ to construct and perfect on my own in the midst of Vienna a poor ‘Wartburg’…” Schenker, that is, envisages his work to be the Wartburg — an outsize monument in Eisenach of Germany symbolizing German unification — that would tower over the history of music theory. It is nevertheless exceedingly difficult in particular for music theory to construct itself as a commemorative monument because it is not a manifestation of sound, nor is it a definitive artwork that represents the “spiritual” through the “physical” (Rehding 2009, 56). The physical is much less important than the thoughts conveyed through the theory, which transcends the physical itself. Monumentality of music theory thus entails a double transcendence.

This may have motivated Riemann and Schenker, and in fact, many other music theorists, to have recourse to nature (Rehding and Clark 2001). But Riemann and Schenker are self-conscious of a pressing political crisis. They are well aware that as much as previous theorists had drawn on the indisputable nature, they could hardly monumentalize their theories. Riemann realizes, for example, how Zarlino, despite his emphasis on the imitation of nature in the sixteenth century (for example, that he associates the four-voice composition [Vierstimmigkeit] with the four elements in nature), are “pushed into the background” in Riemann’s time (Wienpahl 1959, 38; Steege 2011, 70). Schenker’s anxiety is highly pronounced when he dismisses his predecessors and Riemann, and believes that his theory should be in the Hall of Fame as the culmination of the history of music history. Moreover, Schenker is certainly aware that he and Riemann occupy a common period at the turn of the nineteenth century, and he is, to be sure, historically sensitive. He understands that history could not culminate in two theoretical monuments under the banner of nature, just as history could not end with two Beethovens. The monument as such cannot be monolithic.

It is nevertheless precisely the two theorists’ divergent takes on nature that become their trump card. For Riemann, to establish a timeless norm in modernity out of itself, which is eternal and immovable yet at once fleeting and contingent, he has to overcome all possible challenges by providing, overwhelmingly, a metaphysical supplement to nature so that in the end, he can overcome nature. He is almost asking the question, “What nature should encompass?” and then provides an answer to it by not only resorting to the fashions of science (acoustics, physiology, psychology), but also to the humanities such as aesthetics and history. The comprehensibility and flexibility of his theory indicate his outsize, almost sublime, take on nature, which enables him to supersede his predecessors who had only imitated, but not integrated nature in music theory. Schenker, however, does not erect an overwhelming monument. Instead, he distances and disintegrates his theory from Nature by putting it to the realm of Absolute so as to let it surreptitiously speak. What we can see in his theory is not Nature itself, but how the genius crystallizes and ventriloquizes the natural gift. By externalizing Nature yet preserving it in an eternal present, Schenker intends to create an indisputable theory that only the genius could comprehend and articulate. In short, Schenker’s and Riemann’s theories manifest a dialectical understanding of nature. The former entails the process of self-alienation from nature, the latter the returning to nature itself. They form the yin and yang of modern art which is self-reflexive and constantly renewed. Together they create an epochal threshold that others can merely subsume into, but not supersede. Nature becomes the solution for Riemann and Schenker to monumentalize their theories, allowing modernity to progress, history to be future (Chua 1999, 236).


There exists a gulf between how we understand nature in the twenty-first century and the natures in Riemann’s and Schenker’s music theories, which are borne out in their own version of history. Yet it is an avenue for us to realize that in music theory nature can be both vague and specific, benevolent and dangerous, static and in flux (Rehding and Clark 2001, 13). It is also the problem and the solution. For while music theory may be everything that explains music, nature is the everything itself (see Lewis 1967, 24–35). It provides a space in which the epistemologies of nature are not only relational (Titon 2013; Piekut 2014), but also reflexive: nature can see and break through itself. In the case of Riemann and Schenker, their dialectic of nature is not set against an environmental crisis, but a political one in modernity: a crisis of monumentality. The aloofness of such historicization of nature in music theory from modern-day environmental crises is an illusion; environmental crises are always historically-situated political crises. What one might take away from music theory, the missing puzzle in ecomusicology, is less about how one can resolve conflicts when it comes to different understandings of nature, but more about how one can empathize with, and at the same time be critical of, the molding of the idea of nature in different contexts (see Watkins 2018). Music theory reminds us that nature is both physical and conceptual, material and immaterial; and what the history of Western music theory teaches us is that human domination over nature has long operated on a conceptual plane. Due to its incontestability, nature (or Nature) has been a convenient concept to be exploited and put to ideological and political use. Therefore, ecomusicology, when taking into account the muted, and now diversifying and globalizing music theory, is more than a “reflection upon music and sound” against the “epochal environmental crisis”; it is a contextual and critical engagement with music studies in relation to nature, a questioning, or even, an emancipation, of nature as an eternal source of value and an incontestable model of beliefs.


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