On the importance of teaching musical theory and technique

In the period prior to the end of the Crimean War (1856), Russian musical life differed in various respects from that in other leading European countries. It was dominated by opera, but much else went on in aristocratic salons, with few regular concert societies. One exception, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society, founded in 1802 (and which gave the premiere of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 1824) mostly produced popular numbers from Italian opera. To be a professional musician meant being in the service of the state, which was unacceptable to most aristocrats. Most major recitals were given by visiting foreign artists, while few Russian composers had a formal musical training. The great pianist Nikolay Rubinstein, who had begun a professional career as a pianist in 1854 (he would later give the premieres of Mily Balakirev’s notorious piano piece Islamey (1869) and was a champion of Chaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto), was made to give up this career in 1855 in order to marry Yelizaveta Dmitriyevna Khrushchova, daughter of a prominent Moscow official, as the profession was deemed as little more than a low-class entertainer. The marriage however turned sour, and Nikolay resumed his career after they separated in 1858.

Nikolay’s older brother Anton, an equally leading pianist and also composer who spent much time travelling around Europe for concerts (both brothers had also spent four years in Berlin when young), wrote an article in the Viennese journal Blätter für Musik, Theater und Kunst in 1855 entitled ‘Die Komponisten Rußland’s’, in which he was sharply critical of the reliance of existing Russian music on allusions to folk songs and dance melodies, provoking some fury from nationalistically-minded composers (some of it deeply anti-semitic in nature), especially Mikhail Glinka, who had been singled out by Rubinstein. But Rubinstein’s article betokened a wider view, as he would later articulate – to him, Russian music was amateurish and dilletantish compared with that he had encountered elsewhere, in large measure down to the lack of provision of professional training, especially compared to that in the German Confederation. Some other Russian composers, led by Mily Balakirev, strongly opposed Rubinstein’s plans, believing him to be planning to import foreign and academic ideas to Russia (once again, in the ugly exchanges, Rubinstein’s Jewishness and the concomitant view that he was less deeply rooted in Russian culture and tradition than others, continued to be evoked). To teach compositional and other technique, to many nationalists, was in contradiction to the idea that it lay somehow deep within the Russian soul, an almost mystical conception. But with his convictions in mind, Rubinstein sought to establish a conservatoire on the model of those in other European cities to provide the training he sought. He was able to do this in 1862, in part due to the support of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, in whose household he had earlier worked as an accompanist for singers, also due to relaxations in higher education brought in under the reign of Tsar Alexander II from 1855, enabling music graduates to call themselves ‘Free Artists’, which freed them from military service and some taxation.

Today the conservatoires in St Petersburg and Moscow (which was founded in 1866 by Nikolay) are amongst the most renowned in the world, and it is strange to think of how their very foundation occasioned such controversy. In 1871 Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to teach composition and orchestration (while remaining in the navy and teaching in uniform). Rimsky-Korsakov had previously been close to the Balakirev faction, but he changed ideological direction at this point and undertook his own intensive study of compositional technique, harmony and counterpoint, in order to be able to teach them. This also bore great fruit in his work, as can be found in works such as the Symphony No. 3 (1866-1873, rev. 1886).

This story came to mind in light of hearing similar arguments both over a period in musicological circles, and in an exchange (in Spanish) on social media. Commonly the type of argument in its contemporary guise goes as follows, with respect to composition teaching: ‘There is no need to teach boring things like harmony and counterpoint, the point is to allow students to be creative‘. Music theory is viewed in opposition to some sort of innate creativity, and the purpose of composition teaching is simply to liberate this, give students a type of ‘permission’ to express themselves however they want. Sometimes one will hear cited the words of John Cage recalling how his own ‘teacher’ (in a loose sense of the word) Arnold Schoenberg told him that he had no feeling for harmony and would come up against a wall which would prevent him from progressing, to which Cage replied that he would continue to beat his head against this wall (the veracity of Cage’s many anecdotes should always be treated with some scepticism, as he was clearly someone who carefully constructed his own mythology). As such, some of those identifying themselves with the field of ‘experimental music’ can be amongst the most vociferous opponents of the teaching of traditional technique (and some indeed advocate primarily for amateur rather than professional music-making).

But I find utterly unconvincing this opposition between technique and creativity, in music or any other art form. Harmony is a factor in most forms of Western music; that in jazz is every bit as sophisticated as in much classical music. Some other musical traditions, such as many from the Arab world, are primarily monophonic, but the primary focus of most education in the West, unsurprisingly and not unnaturally, is upon the range of traditions which have developed here, and this is the primary focus of most students (it would be as strange for Western institutions to discontinue the teaching of Western traditions as for Chinese institutions to do the same with their own). There are varieties of new music which owe relatively little to such traditions (such as that of Cage and some of his followers, or perhaps around Iannis Xenakis as well), but these are niche interests, like much new music (I will be writing more about this in a subsequent blog post). Most of those drawn to more integrative art music traditions, popular musics, musical theatre, film music and much else are dealing with musics rooted in developed harmonic traditions. To understand the workings of these and the possibilities thus engendered is to expand the range of possible creative application, not to narrow it.

The teaching of counterpoint has had an interesting history. In the Renaissance harmony was largely seen as a by-product of counterpoint, indicating particular ways in which musical lines formed vertical groupings of consonances and dissonances at particular points. In a gradual process from the advent of the seconda pratica at the beginning of the 17th century, harmony, and the structural relationships between different chords, came to assume an ever more prominent position in theory and education, coming to supersede the teaching of counterpoint in some places by the early 19th century, not least at the Paris Conservatoire. Certainly plenty of composers of this period, such as Frédéric Chopin or Johannes Brahms, still believed in the value of knowledge of counterpoint and studied it diligently. It was later in the century that counterpoint returned centre-stage in Paris, in the context of a post-1871 era which witnessed increased interest in earlier (pre-revolutionary) French musical traditions (which were viewed as archaic and reactionary after 1789), and became fundamental to the work and teaching of Gabriel Fauré, who was director of the Conservatoire from 1905 to 1920. Ultimately, I believe many who have studied it are deeply conscious of the value of understanding the interactions of lines even for the purpose of teaching more vertically-oriented music.

The same goes for the teaching of instrumental and orchestral technique – understanding the possibilities and limitations of different instruments, their particular characteristics and the results of performers employing certain techniques, and of course the ways in which they can be combined to optimal effect. Anyone wanting to write for live musicians can surely only gain from such knowledge, enabling more incisive use of such instruments. The same can be said for the compositional study of vocal technique.

Some such theoretical teaching is dismissed by some as simply a set of antiquated practices irrelevant to the modern era, and a means of artificially elevated the status of the group of dead white (mostly) males who developed them. But the same could be said of most technical or technological innovations which occurred in the West – would people reject the use of the telephone or the computer or the train for the same reason? In my opinion, very little music of lasting consequence is created ‘out of nothing’, most draws upon knowledge and understanding of other music which has preceded it, and can build upon or enter into a more critical relationship with its achievements (and limitations).

And once again this is not unique to classical traditions, as many others have highly developed and sophisticated styles which are the result of the application of various techniques. Sometimes these are of a different nature or constitute a different set of priorities, for sure; the sort of intricate thematic development which has traditionally accompanied a good deal of music in the sonata/symphonic classical tradition from the late 18th century is much less of a factor in popular song, for example, and other approaches of vocal writing, or particular use of instruments and electronic timbres, play a more central role. As one commentator on the thread linked to earlier pointed out, a great many blues musicians learned their craft through hours of listening, practice and imitation, which are another form of learning of technique. Those who idealise impressive instrumental improvised solos from jazz or other musicians may not always be aware of the many hours of work which have gone into developing the ability (not least the inner self-criticism) to do these, to go beyond simple repetition of known figurations, to be able to achieve fluency and genuine spontaneity, and so on; improvisation builds upon technique as much as any form of music-making.

It would be narrow to suggest that only a particular set of techniques from the common practice period should be taught (equally narrow not to teach them, however), and there is a reasonable argument that music theory and compositional technique should encompass a more plural range of traditions than has sometimes been the case hitherto. But the argument which opposes technique to creativity is myopic, primitivist and amateurish, in line with those arguments maintaining everyone is an artist and to pretend otherwise is the unwelcome hegemony of an elite, arguments which were soundly critiqued here. The professionalisation of musical education may in certain senses be ‘elitist’, in the sense that those who have had a professional training generally achieve skills and abilities which set them apart from those who have not. But to reject this type of elitism is really to reject education altogether, and (re-)institute other forms of less welcome elitism and discrimination, for if there is no reason to judge the quality of anyone’s work, one can be sure that other measures (which may relate to possession of independent means, family connections, and so on) will determine which art achieves some prominence.

Ultimately, if we eschew the teaching of compositional technique in education, we are giving students a meagre offering for the considerable amount of money they spend on such education. There are students who would prefer not to have to put in the considerable amount of self-directed study required to develop technique (definitely this cannot be achieved exclusively in the classroom), but to pander to this view is to facilitate a form of infantilisation and discourage students from developing the greater intellectual and creative maturity which will serve them well after graduation. If we want to help students be creative, we should be helping to provide them with the means to do so. And the wider the range of techniques taught, the greater the range of possibilities thus opened up.

(The story about the conservatoire and professionalisation of Russian musical life in the nineteenth century is covered in various books on Russian music and the Rubinsteins, but the most comprehensive treatment can be found in Lynn M. Sargeant’s Harmony & Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)).