Review of Michael Cherlin. 2007. Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

Root, Gordon

In the introduction to his insightful new book, Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination, music theorist Michael Cherlin describes his approach as an alternative to the kind of formalistic analyses of Schoenberg’s music that once dominated the pages of American music theory journals. Considering this anti-formalist bent, readers who would anticipate a book thin in analytic detail may be somewhat surprised by the density of Cherlin’s analyses; Cherlin’s point seems to be that an expansion of cultural and philosophical context need not altogether preclude technical analysis. Cherlin argues that certain musical and dramatic conflicts form a persistent thread throughout Schoenberg’s music and theoretical ideas. It is this persistence that leads him to explore the influence of dialectical thinking on Schoenberg’s musical rhetoric. One of the most interesting features of this book is Cherlin’s general avoidance of set-class theory, which, when used without an awareness of its limitations, tends to steer analysts toward the rather bland and self-evident conclusion that works of music cohere in some way or another.


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August 18, 2022