David Lewin

Exponent of 'transformational analysis' in music theory
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The Independent Online

David Benjamin Lewin, music theorist, teacher and composer: born New York 2 July 1933; married 1958 June Knight (one son); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 5 May 2003.

David Lewin was one of the most formidable intellects in American musical scholarship. What made Lewin's writings and teaching outstanding, and powerfully communicative, was his openness of mind, his unwillingness to respect established boundaries that might obscure the path to discovery.

Lewin's academic and musical pedigree was impressive. He grew up in New York City where, from the age of 12, he spent five years studying piano, harmony and composition with the Polish-American pianist and composer Edward Steuermann, which made him a "grandpupil" of Busoni, Schoenberg and Humperdinck. He graduated BA in mathematics, summa cum laude, from Harvard in 1954.

Then, after a year in Vienna studying with Josef Polnauer (another Schoenberg alumnus), he went on to lessons in theory and composition at Princeton with a stellar series of teachers: Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt (who later declared Lewin a genius), Earl Kim and Edward Cone. He took a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1958, spending the next three years as a Junior Fellow at Harvard.

David Lewin's own teaching career began at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961. He relocated to the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1967 and remained there until 1980, his last year overlapping with a six-year appointment at Yale; he held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983-84. From 1985 until his death he taught at Harvard, as the Walter W. Naumburg professor of music.

Lewin was a frequent contributor to the scholarly journals - among them the Journal of Music Theory, Perspectives of New Music, Music Perception and Nineteenth-Century Music - and he wrote two highly influential books on transformational theory and analysis, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations (1987) and Musical Form and Transformation: 4 analytic essays (1993). The first soon became required reading in analysis classes across America; the second won the Ascap-Deems Taylor Award.

The especial value of Lewin's approach was its inclusiveness. The tendency had been to regard tonal and atonal music as mutually exclusive, at least as far as analysis was concerned. Lewin's enthusiasms included Brahms (he was one of the founders of the American Brahms Society), Bach, Mozart, Rameau, Debussy and Wagner as well as his "grandteacher" Schoenberg, and so he looked for a more inclusive approach. Lewin's erstwhile student Edward Gollin explains transformational analysis as

an innovative approach to looking at the structure and organisation of a musical work contextually, one that places emphasis not only upon the "things" that make up a composition, but also upon the relationships between and among those things. The attention paid to the relationships, or transformations, between the elements of musical works offered a view of musical structure that crossed structural domains (not just pitch, but duration, rhythm, timbre, etc), crossed historical genres and categories (tonal as well as pre- and post-tonal music), and allowed Lewin to present a dynamic view of musical structure - one that captured the experience of the music from the perspective of performer and careful listener.

Bruce MacIntyre, a student at SUNY Stony Brook during Lewin's time there recalls his classes with warmth:

I've never forgotten his advice on the main purpose of any musical analysis: finding out "what the piece is". No more, no less. The what of the piece, and making sense of it - that seemed to be his goal in any analysis. It did not necessarily have to fit some external theory about analysis. I think the composer in David made him that way.

The "composer in David" is far less well known than the theorist. His output is small, is atonal in idiom, generally dates from the earlier part of his career, is largely focused on chamber music and occasionally pays explicit homage to the intellectual tradition from which he sprang. It includes 4 Short Pieces for string quartet (1956), a viola sonata (1957-58), an Essay on a Subject by Webern for chamber orchestra (1958), Classical Variations on a Theme by Schoenberg for cello and piano (1960), a fantasia for organ (1962), 5 Characteristic Pieces for two pianos (1964) and a Fantasy-Adagio for violin and orchestra (1963). He also tried his hand at computer music, working at the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and producing a work called Computer Music in 1970-71. He liked straightforward titles: a 1982 piece for piano is called For Piano.

Lewin also took an active part in performance, both backstage and on the podium. As an undergraduate he produced operas by Handel, Grétry and Purcell, and in the 1966-67 season he produced, and played the piano in, a presentation of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.

Naturally, Lewin took a vigorous interest in the development of music theory, serving on the Executive Board of the Society for Music Theory from 1981 to 1990, acting for part of that time (1985-88) as its President.

A proposal by Xavier Hascher, of the Université Marc-Bloch in Strasbourg, that the university award Lewin an honorary doctorate had been accepted, although Lewin died before it could be conferred. Hascher's view of Lewin's achievement is straightforward:

The depth of his analytical-theoretical work is unfathomable. He revived in a modern, far-reaching way the ancient relation between music and mathematics. His thought was as sophisticated as his manners were simple.

Martin Anderson

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