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)).


New article on abuse and classical music by Damian Thompson in the Spectator, and some wider reflections on classical music and abuse

A new article went online yesterday on abuse in the classical music world – Damian Thompson, ‘Classical music’s dirty little secret’, The Spectator, December 6th, 2014. It contrasts in particular the revelations about alleged abuse within the El Sistema organisation through the work of Geoff Baker, and those about abuse at Chetham’s School of Music and elsewhere, featuring an interview with me on this and related subjects. The article goes deeper than most have done previously, and I would urge all to read it.

I have been reflecting more widely on the relationship between the callous exertion of power in music and also aestheticised outlooks, and the abuse of both children and adults, and wanted to share a few thoughts growing out of what I said for the Spectator interview. I have published previously on this in the Times Educational Supplement here and here, and will write at more length on these issues at a future date. At the heart of this lie the issues of the exploitation of power beneath an artistic veneer, and the relegating of human interests secondary to other aesthetic or more abstract concerns, an subject which has exercised me for a great many years. Here are my thoughts for now.

There are multiple ways in which sexual abuse occurs in musical education in the UK (see my earlier posts here and here for documentation of various cases since 1990). One involves abuse of pre-pubescent boys in choirs, and has been found time and time again in many leading private schools; another involves adolescents, primarily but not exclusively girls, who are sexually exploited by instrumental teachers, especially in specialist music schools and at summer music courses and the like. There is also of course much evidence of abuse of both sexes by private music teachers, who are often not subject to the same checks as those working in some institutions. The process of sexual exploitation of adolescents also continues with young adults in conservatoires, in a similar fashion. Instrumental teachers have great power and prestige which can easily be exploited when they have access to vulnerable, sometimes star-struck, girls and young women. The many stories I have heard are utterly hideous and depressing. Teachers regularly reduce their students to tears so they can then comfort and sexually touch them, or ask the students to perform sexual acts as a sign of how much they ‘trust’ them. Some are told they can only do justice to certain types of music when they have become a ‘whole woman’, as a prelude to sex. Other teachers simply attempt to force themselves on students in lessons in ways which can be terrifying and amount to attempted rape. Some have been told by directors of institutions that if they dare to go to the police, then they can give up any hope they might have had of a musical career; those with powerful connections are indeed often in a position to do this.

But there are certainly non-sexual forms of abuse which have gone on at all the music schools as well, which can be just as damaging. The issues of abuse in the classical musical world are not in my opinion simply about some people in power being sexually attracted to some musicians – I don’t think that is something surprising, unnatural or wrong, even if they act on those desires, when the musicians are above the age of consent and of course consenting. But I believe these link to a deeper culture of power and its wilful exertion, a vocabulary and mentality of sexual predation as a strategy to demean, dominate, humiliate for reasons that are far from merely sexual. In this field, in my experience, there is no reason to believe that female teachers are any less likely to be culpable than male ones (and in the case of actual sexual abuse the gender divide is not necessarily so simple; even where not actual perpetrators, some female teachers and others have been amongst the most staunch defenders of abusers, and acted in hateful and vicious ways towards those they have exploited).

In such a context sexual abuse can often be an extension of other forms of emotional and physical abuse, in order to enforce a relationship of domination and dehumanisation mystified by the aura surrounding ‘artistic’ personalities and their relationships to others. An artistic aura and its associated temperament can often mask simple cases of fragile egos and other insecurities, which can be bolstered by dominating others. Such domination works best with a willing or at least helpless victim in the form of a child, or one who acts and appears like one.

At the same time, I think we need to look hard at the way audiences and others ‘consume’ and psychologically dominate musicians, especially young ones. Is the young performer presented in a rarefied fashion for an audience’s delectation so different from a glamour model, or even one in a window in a red light district? Are they meant to have a will of their own, or merely to please others?

The world view of the nineteenth-century aesthete still has a profound impact upon classical music culture, certainly in the UK, US, France and some other places. I have spent quite some time studying this in various contexts (not least the ways in which this outlook can be linked to fascism, as diagnosed in different ways by Walter Benjamin, Roger Shattuck and Frederic Spotts). The aesthetic movement was a type of quasi-aristocratic rearguard group of aesthetes reacting against the growth of bourgeois society and mass culture. They believed moral questions and human interests to be of little importance relative to their own notions of beauty. This beauty was of course something only a small number were in a position to appreciate, an aesthetic aristocracy if you like, and they often viewed other human beings in purely aesthetic terms. I believe this is profoundly dehumanising. There is also a considerable overlap between early aesthetes, including Pater, Wilde, Huysmans, Crowley and others, and the movement of ‘Uranian’ poets and some artists, a group of pederasts who were described in the volume Betrayal of Youth as like a nineteenth-century version of the Paedophile Information Exchange.

To the aesthete, a young boy not yet faced by the doubts, moral choices and responsibility of an adult, is unthreatening and more ripe to be adored and salivated over. If you look at pederastic photographs of naked young boys in classical poses by Wilhelm von Gloeden, who was associated with the Uranians (and whose work I have earlier written about in terms of its influence upon some music of Michael Finnissy), you will see a similar thing. Certain qualities are favoured – looks suggesting arrogance but submission, petulance and self-centeredness, and sometimes exaggerated hyper-masculinity, absolutely nothing which would suggest an emerging mind or any trappings of an intellectual-to-be.

I have seen exactly the same attitudes at play regularly amongst those with power in the classical music world. Young men and women favoured to the extent they exhibit (deliberately or unwittingly) certain of these attributes. Some men because they look like a slightly thuggish rent boy, some women because they can give the right type of Shirley Temple-like sickly-sweet smile. Fundamentally, they become objects, and often the critics, administrators, radio producers and so on who favour them will abandon them as they get older, so they can move onto their next bright young things. This is all part of the same processes of domination of which sexual abuse of children is the most extreme form.

There’s a very obvious continuum, to me, between von Gloeden’s arrogant yet submissive naked boys and the picture of Gustavo Dudamel with a smug and self-satisfied expression, showing how his willingness to conform to the needs of others is rewarded with a Rolex watch. Similarly between Lewis Carroll’s pederastic pictures of young girls and some of the images routinely encountered of young female violinists. The same is true of the publicity materials and discursive constructions around numerous Wunderkind young composers and performers. The arbiters of classical music enmesh musicians into their own web in ways which bear an uncanny resemblance to the grooming strategies of paedophiles. I have even come to consider more sinister interpretations of the apparent innocence, suffused with unspoken desire, which I hear in works such as Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, possibly representing dances of naked boys (in part) at an ancient Spartan festival, at a time when the concept of ‘Greek love’ (love between men and boys) was very much in vogue in British and French artistic circles.

There were tyrannical teachers and educational practices which grew in the nineteenth century. It was seen as perfectly acceptable to beat students; teachers put them through gruelling (and generally useless) regimes of exercises so that the few who had not had a nervous breakdown or suffered irreparable muscular damage could feel themselves blessed and ‘toughened up’ for a musical career, in which they could inflict the same on their own students. Learning, practising, and music-making were made mind-numbing and conducted in an atmosphere of intense fear. In the educational culture bequeathed above all by the early Paris Conservatoire, the emphasis was no longer upon producing a rounded musician and individual, as in earlier times, but more simply a streamlined playing machine. But in many places these methods were found to be unsatisfactory in many respects and more mature and humane approaches began to take their place, which also often produced much finer musicians.

But then with the Cold War and the Soviet need above all to produce competition winners rather than rounded musicians, there was something of a backlash. Dictatorial approaches to teaching, with no concern for the wider consequences, came back into fashion. Some were aped in the West, crowding out some alternative approaches. Several of the specialist music schools in the UK – all of which were founded between 1962 and 1972 – were explicitly modelled on Russian institutions and styles of teaching, at a time when considerations of the welfare of children and the dangers of such hothouse environments hardly registered.

I have heard major allegations of abuse at all five institutions. The schools have certainly all produced some successful musicians, but if they are happy to take credit for these, they must also take responsibility for the ruined lives, sometimes racked by depression, self-harm, suicide attempts and more, which are equally their legacy. The effect of a school upon all who attended it, not just a small successful minority, matters.

Bullying and malicious exploitation of power in musical education are also rampant. Insecure teachers do this plenty. One of my own former students underwent some serious bullying at the hands of another teacher on a course, who tried everything he could to undermine this pianist by repeatedly spreading malicious talk about him to others, doing all he could to humiliate him in front of others (and before he was about to perform) and so on, because he saw him as a threat. Various people complained about the behaviour of this teacher, but of course nothing was done. This individual once proudly pronounced ‘I get students who think they are good – my job is to make them realise they suck’. This attitude is all-revealing – it is not about helping the student, but playing power games to bolster the teacher’s own self-esteem.

Other types of behaviour I have often encountered have deeply shocked me – just the callousness of it all. One privileged young composer thought nothing of fabricating false rumours about a rival, claiming he was being beaten up by his father, so as to portray this rival as unstable and thus unlikely to be up to being a composer. What has shocked me even more is how many people know this and other similar things about this person, but are completely unbothered by it – certainly it did not impede his own progression in academia. I know one instrumentalist who feigns friendship in order to gain other musicians’ confidence, so that they might reveal such things as spells of depression, which he then uses as malicious gossip to undermine them; another did the same when he found that one woman was going through a legal process in which she alleged her father had abused her. A prominent musician, upon being appointed to a prominent position, bragged to others that now he had the chance to get revenge on all those who had previously stood in his way.

Classical music and its associated culture is still shot through by some fundamentally hierarchical nineteenth-century values which are little in vogue any longer in other cultural fields. I am not saying we should throw out the baby with the bathwater, but do believe much rethinking is necessary. Sexual abuse in classical music is maybe the most extreme symptom of a wider corruption. When you have a culture which idolises a small few ‘great men/women’, sees narcissism, bullying and despicable treatment of others not simply as unavoidable evils but actually as signs of artistry, and encourages an attitude of awe and submission, rather than concrete and critical engagement, then the dangers of abuse are acute.

Whilst figures such as Beethoven or Wagner or Furtwängler or Britten continue to be idolised not just for the work they produced but for the personalities they were, then the role models for younger musicians are fatally flawed. We should reject entirely the idea that musicians are a breed apart, and discourage such thinking.