On the importance of teaching musical theory and techniquePosted: March 18, 2022 Filed under: Academia, Culture, Higher Education, History, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology, New Music | Tags: Anton Rubinstein, beethoven, classical music, creativity, Crimean War, frédéric chopin, Gabriel Fauré, improvisation, jazz, johannes brahms, john cage, Mikhail Glinka, Mily Balakirev, Missa Solemnis, music theory, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay Rubinstein, paris conservatoire, technique, Yelizaveta Dmitriyevna Khrushchova 5 Comments
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 to 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)).
Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter DonohoePosted: January 11, 2019 Filed under: Culture, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: beach boys, bob dylan, canons, charlotte c gill, classical music, deskilling, franz liszt, gary tomlinson, georgina born, haydn, jimi hendrix, mozart, nicholas cook, peter donohoe, popular music, populism, simon zagorski-thomas, stella duffy, susan mcclary 6 Comments
The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.
The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.
I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).
The following is Donohoe’s response:
This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’
It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.
However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.
By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?
Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.
The following is part of my response:
The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:
‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’
Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.
‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”
And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.
‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?
Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’
Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’
Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.
The whiter-than-white world of published British composers, and some wider thoughtsPosted: December 15, 2013 Filed under: Music - General, Politics | Tags: classical music, music publishing, race, Sound and Music 16 Comments
Following my last post on the British Composer Awards and race, I thought I would investigate figures for published British composers. For this I have drawn upon the catalogues of all but one of the major British publishers – Boosey & Hawkes, Faber Music, Music Sales, Peters Edition, United Music Publishers, Universal Edition and University of York Music Press. Reasons of time have meant I had to omit Schott Music for now, as their website does not separate out contemporary composers from everyone else from any era, whether composer or author, who has composed a work, authored an instrumental tutor, played a part in making an arrangement, and so on, producing a list with many hundreds of names through which to navigate. I have limited this study to living British composers – in the sense of being British-born or having adopted British nationality. I have also omitted composers who have only had the odd work published, the majority of their work being self-published. The following results emerge:
Boosey & Hawkes
10 living British composers, all white
There are five sub-categories:
House Composers: 14 living British composers, all white
Educational Composers: 16 living British composers, 15 white.
Film/TV Composers: 15 living British composers, 14 white.
Music for Now: 13 living British composers, all white
Rock & Pop Composers: 5 living British composers and two outfits, all white.
32 living British composers, 30 white.
9 living British composers, 8 white.
United Music Publishers
9 living British composers, all white
3 living British composers, all white (they have published some others in the past, who have now withdrawn their scores)
University of York Music Press
25 living British composers, 24 white.
Out of a total of 151 published living British composers, all but six are white. This constitutes a figure of 4%. Of those six, two are educational or film/TV composers. Only three British-born composers who are not of white origin are published. This constitutes a figure of 2%. According to the 2011 census, 12.9% of the British population do not belong to the ‘White’ category, so the ratio for published composers falls very significantly below that in the wider society.
I would not wish to single out publishers for particular censure, but would argue these figures are symptomatic of a deeper issue. From an informal survey to myself of published composers in other European countries, the situation is little different there, including in countries with significant ethnic minority populations. The world of contemporary composition (including, it would seem, more commercially-oriented composition) appears to be one of the ‘whitest’ fields around, certainly compared to some other artistic disciplines (compare published novelists, for example).
An argument I have already begun to hear since my last post is that which maintains that there is really little interest in contemporary composition outside of white communities (except perhaps amongst some East Asians) and so the current situation is merely reflecting the reality. But this is not so far from similar arguments relating to gender, based upon the fact that composition courses are frequently disproportionately male as well (certainly compared to courses in performance). That argument was the basis for complacency with respect to gender, and it is just as complacent with respect to race (and class, about which it is harder to come up with hard figures, but where I suspect the situation might be equally if not more problematic, and more so today than at a time when composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies or Brian Ferneyhough were able to make a career).
In university music departments at which I have taught or guest-taught, there can (sometimes) be an ethnic mix not so far removed from that in the wider society, and on many courses students are required to study at least some composition. It should at least be reason for concern and questioning that such a tiny number of these ever emerge into the professional composition world. In other fields, there might be concrete action involving educational programmes to try and persuade some young people from minority backgrounds that such fields should not be perceived as essentially for whites-only, just as there have been initiatives to encourage women composers.
Furthermore, the fact that commissioning and programming policies, and principles of public subsidy in general, vastly favour musical work clearly located within white European art music traditions (as witnessed in terms of musical style, instruments used, type of concert settings employed and associated rituals, and so on) also serve to lend music traditionally belonging to the white middle- or upper classes a level of state-sanctioned prestige which is not generally available to other traditions to anything like the same degree. Something of this issue informed the petitions and counter-petitions about the commissioning policies of the organisation Sound and Music which took place in early 2012 (see this link for the original petition (speaking disapprovingly of how SaM ‘has pledged to
continue promoting ‘Electronic and Improvised; Noise and Art Rock; Notated and Modern Composition; Sonic Art; Multimedia and Cross Art Form; Jazz, World and Folk; and Alternative Rock & Dance’’ and this for the counter-petition).
The very concept of ‘classical music’ (a tradition in which, of course, I am myself as a musician and academic deeply emerged, and would hate to see fade from public life), as distinct from other genres and traditions (the term as used in the West does not generally incorporate other non-Western forms of musical high culture, which are sometimes elsewhere called ‘classical’) needs to be re-considered, and the relationship of new composition to this tradition similarly questioned, at least in terms of aesthetic priorities. In many ways the product of a variety of late eighteenth-/nineteenth-century trends – including nationalism and consequent need to frame national musical traditions, responses towards (and frequently against) the growth of mass culture as a consequence of expanding cities and new lower middle classes, decline in feudal institutions such as had previously supported art music – the concept of the ‘classical’ in music has deep resonances both of class and of race.
For music belonging to or relating to this tradition to continue to be something worth supporting and defending in a modern multicultural world, and it not to decline into something irretrievably archaic, requires in my view that we begin to address seriously the ways in which it has been connected to other forms of social exclusion and discrimination. There is absolutely no reason why musical work considered to be ‘art’ (as opposed to entertainment, for all the problems inherent in this opposition), in terms of being exploratory, challenging, demanding, aesthetically refined or otherwise distinctive, and so on, should be any more associated with Western high cultural traditions than any others – and the frequent conflating of the classical/popular dichotomy onto that of art/entertainment only serves to feed misapprehensions in this respect. But with a widened concept of ‘art music’, inevitably that more traditionally considered ‘classical’ may have to share some subsidy and other resources with work from other traditions – and the targeting of large sums towards traditional concert halls and series, opera houses, and so on, for new commissions, may also have to be rethought. To some extent this may be happening to a small degree (including with organisations such as Sound and Music), and musical education has for a few decades gradually started to catch up with major curricular questions for the discipline in a multicultural environment. But a wholesale re-negotiation of policies concerning subsidy and institutions would likely meet with fierce resistance from defenders of traditional notions of classical music, and probably indeed also from many musicians who personally benefit from the preservations of those values and institutions. I would however personally welcome and urge reconsiderations in this respect.
Once again, it is possible that I may have made a few errors in my data, and would welcome any corrections. I hope at some point to add some figures from Schott to the list for the sake of greater completeness.