Musicological Observations 9: Scholars as Custodians of Tradition

In a recent social media post, cellist, composer and musicologist Franklin Cox wrote something I found inspiring and rather beautiful, and wanted to make public (with permission). The idea of musicians and scholars as ‘custodians’ of a tradition is deeply unfashionable, especially in academia, as historical or other study not concerned with maximum commercial utility are increasingly marginalised. There is plenty of work for those dealing with commercial pop music or ludomusicology (the study of music for video games) but dwindling numbers of positions for historical or analytical musicologists other than in the most elite institutions. The ‘contemporary’ is viewed as synonymous with ‘relevance’, and the mindset of former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast Patrick Johnston, who told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old that’s a sixth century historian’, appears to be relatively commonplace amongst many educators, educationalists, and politicians dealing with education.

But I do believe very strongly in the responsibility of scholars for maintaining, extending and supplementing knowledge of thousands of years of music, culture, language. To be such custodians need not preclude a rigorous and critical attitude towards such a tradition, or critical engagement with its more questionable associated or embedded ideologies or practices. On the contrary, such approaches, when undertaken constructively and intelligently rather than simply in a spirit of off-hand dismissal, are essential in order to keep such a tradition a living concern. But to stand by and do nothing as study of this tradition (or of languages, or any art form) is allowed to wither is an act of profound irresponsibility on the part of any musician or scholar. When one has a situation as related to me recently in one leading music department, when not one third year undergraduate was able to hum the opening theme of the Eroica (though plenty of those will have heard about how canonical works such as this represent hegemony, white supremacy, and so on), there is something very seriously wrong.

The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.

It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.

There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.

These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.


3 Comments on “Musicological Observations 9: Scholars as Custodians of Tradition”

  1. The former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast Patrick Johnston remarks, bring to mind a science graduate, who once he had obtained his degree in Science was unable to find employment in his chosen speciality. So, do we need to ask are university courses fit for the purpose intended, in other words, the workplace. The days when one could attend university as an extension to academic learning are long gone. You attend university to improve your life chances, so are universities just the new technical colleges for the middle class, but not providing the skills of the modern workforce?

    • The alleged mismatch between university study and the so-called “workplace” actually strengthens the argument for an idealistic conception of university as a place of intellectual development.

      Most music students will never again have the opportunity to focus so intently on the subject (to be honest, this applies even in respect of those who go on to make a career in music, academia, and/or closely related occupations, once the enormity of their administrative and financial responsibilities are taken into account — very few musicians have the luxury of being sheltered from such extrinsic burdens completely); therefore, I would argue that universities and conservatoires have an ethical responsibility to harness their almost unique position as institutions charged with maintaining the “beacon of knowledge” to facilitate intensive artistic and intellectual development as an intrinsic end in itself. As Pace and Cox say so rightly, the heritage of an artistic tradition is vital in informing meaningful contributions to contemporary culture, howsoever these contributions purport to situate themselves in relation to such heritage.

      Most music students choose the subject in the full knowledge that the path to a career in music is not paved with gold. Many could have chosen a more lucrative (in narrow financial terms) subject quite easily. Some music students enrol having already studied another subject (and graduated with a degree therein) at university level. Rather than insult their intelligence by assuming they are gullible consumers with no understanding of their so-called “life chances”, let us, as educators, do our utmost to facilitate a locupletative experience of serious and intensive study in the field that they have chosen, encouraging them to partake in learning from, maintaining, and **contributing to** the “beacon of knowledge”, whether that is manifested subsequently in a professional or amateur capacity. In the UK, many music students spend only three years in Higher Education (and for those who study music at Master’s level after having studied a different subject at undergraduate level, the time spent studying music in Higher Education could be as little as one year) — let us ensure that this limited time will constitute a source of lifetime stimulation and inspiration unconfined by the dreary exigencies of earning a living.

      In any case, since music does not exist in isolation from the extrinsic vicissitudes of living and working in the so-called “real world”, the skills honed in the course of studying music as an end in itself already form a robust basis for developing one’s career thereafter, whethersoever it be related to music. As musicians, educators, and researchers, we should also keep in mind that, for all our knowledge and experience, we are not omniscient and thus cannot anticipate every connection and instance of wider relevance in our work, despite the vain pretence implicit in so-called “Intended Learning Outcomes” and “Impact case studies”. If anything, it is the unanticipated impacts that enliven teaching and research, as well as exerting a healthy pressure to maintain the highest standards of scholarship and ethics (because not all impacts are good, and by recognising the impossibility of anticipating everything, we recognise the importance of circumspection in what we say and do).

  2. […] the cellist and composer Franklin Cox made a comment on social media which I found remarkable and earlier blogged. He was prepared to express the unfashionable view that those teaching music have a responsibility […]


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