Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Narrow Canon

Teaching music history must be an impossible task. There's so much of it, and there's never enough time to do it justice in breadth or depth. The best one can do, I suppose, is point out some landmarks, assign and recommend a lot of extra reading and listening, and help students aquire a few tools with which they can get a hold on unfamiliar music on their own when they leave school.

Out of curiosity, I did an online search for +"music history" +curriculum to get some sense of how college and University music teachers are dealing with the impossible. I looked especially at one semester courses in which the task was presumably even more than impossible. There were not many surprises. The unqualified term "music history" meant western music, and that meant Gregorian chant followed by mostly German and Viennese music (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Brahms). France usually appears (if at all) in the persons of Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique) and Debussy (that Faune again), while Italy is represented by Monteverdi in one course, in another by Vivaldi, and Verdi in the few in which operas were mentioned (from what I could tell, Wagner was usually represented by the Vorspiel to Tristan). No Russians appeared except Stravinsky, who was represented inevitably by Le Sacre. Smetana's Moldau and Dvorak's New World sometimes appeared. Schönberg got some attention (the Five Pieces for Orchestra or Pierrot, and A Survivor from Warsaw). American music, when there was time, was Ives, Copland, and Bernstein. Few courses got as far as the second half of the 20th century, but several threw in one or two lessons on "Jazz", which strikes me as drastically simplifying if not breaking the narrative to the disadvantage of both African-American music and the European tradition.

I wonder what can be done to both save some sense of a narrative and to do more than breeze through a very narrow canon. The difficulty is clearly one of our position in the narrative, in that never before has it been possible, let alone expected, that one have a sense of such a long and varied repertoire, and the very large dimensions of that repertoire are forcing us into a highly selective music-historical memory that is analogous to that which musicians of earlier generations came to naturally. The narrative is not that of the musics that had been, in their historical sequence, but the music that one knew, in the sequence in which one encountered them. Mozart and Mendelssohn both discovered Bach archaeologically, as a composer whose relationship to contemporary practice had been radically severed. The music they knew best was of their own generation and the generation of their parents, and it was a music with a strongly limited geographical reach. But it was a coherent repertoire with which they had such an intimacy with devices, conventions, and styles that it is very difficult for us to even imagine it. (On the other hand, the Webern that influenced La Monte Young, or Steve Reich, or even Stravinsky, was the Webern from the Robert Craft recordings, an odd and wonderful leap of musical practice in both time and place).

At the moment, I can recognize three alternatives. The first is to teach smaller repertoires in greater depth. Teach a period, or a century, or a nation, or just the career of a single composer, or even the music that a Bach or Mozart wrote in a single town over a few year's time. The second is to leave the notion of a repertoire to the side and concentrate on musical materials, techniques, and listening skills with which any music might be apprehended. And the third, I'll call the Europera alternative, after Cage's late operas, in which the music was assembled from the jetsam of the European operatic repertoire (hence the title, "your operas"). This requires getting over the notion that coming to musical repertoire in an historically and geographically unordered way is either unusual or intrinsically problematic, and focusing instead on the possibility that surprising juxtapositions of music can be intellectually and musically productive. Such a non-narrative, indeed anarchic, approach will probably not sit easily in any institutional context, but given the present difficulties institutions have with treating the subject with more traditional approaches, I cannot recognize any intrinsic intellectual difficulty with the idea.*

* There is one alternative I have omitted, and that is the approach of the experienced musician who can stand before a group of students and tell a story about the course of music history as he or she has personally understood or experienced it. Grosvenor Cooper (famous as one half of the team that brought us The Rhythmic Structure of Music), for example, was legendary for both his story telling and his ability to summon up, from memory, illustrations on the piano of whatever he needed.


Adam Baratz said...

My problem with the music history I've had is that it neglected the smaller details for the grand sweep. You get a few bullet factoids on each of the composers, but when it comes to knowing a single piece of music (analytically, expressively, performance practices, whatever), it leaves you pretty dry. The times when I really felt I learned something were when I had to do 10-12 pages on a single piece.

I think music history would be more rewarding if you could come away from it knowing only a few pieces, but knowing them backwards and forwards. Since everyone has their own conception of music history, wouldn't the best idea be to equip students with the tools needed to understand it from their own POV?

Daniel Wolf said...

Adam --

We're clearly on the same page, here.

I think, though, that it's worth considering exactly what it means to know a few pieces "backwards and forwards". I suppose for most musicians this means internalizing and analyzing a single musical text in detail. But there is alternative, in which one knows the idiom so well that the style is internalized and the specific piece is one particular instance of the style ("if you hum a few bars, I can fake it").

This occured to me while thinking about those Mozart manuscripts in which he left the piano part in a kind of shorthand. Either he knew precisely what he wanted and fixed it in his mind, or he intentionally left the score open to the solutions available through extemporaneous playing in the idiom. I don't really know the scholarship in this field, but would not be surprised if the period performance practice had included substantial elements that were not fixed or even at variance with those in the score.

Frank Pesci said...

Interesting points. My interest in the subject is not necessarily what is taught per se, but who is teaching it. I would much rather be behind a history survey (or a theory curriculum, for that matter)taught by a faculty of composers rather than history or theory specialists. Who better to teach the practices that comprise the history than practitioners themselves?