On the Matter of a Doctor's Degree for Composers

October 1, 1963

This article was part of a Symposium entitled The Doctorate in Composition. Other contributors to this Symposium were Arthur Mendel, Henry Leland Clarke, Robert Middleton, George Rochberg, Peter Eliot Stone, and Henry Weinberg. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 3.


Although he was advised against stirring up a hornet's nest, the editor felt that the pages of SYMPOSIUM provided the proper forum for comment on this vexing and controversial subject. He therefore extended invitations for suitable articles with the intent of securing a consensus of current thought on the problem. The response on the whole was gratifying, except for some of the composers who could not find the time to submit their promised contributions. Since the economic issue was raised by several participants, the editor also asked for the statements of two student composers, directly affected by this aspect of the question. Letters arguing the matter pro or con will be welcomed for future issues of SYMPOSIUM.


American universities have the distinction of granting a place to the arts of such breadth and importance as to be hardly rivalled anywhere else in the world. Poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, composers belong to the ranks of the American university as surely as do mathematicians and scientists, philosophers and historians. European universities accord no such place to the creative arts. The co-existence of artists and scholars in the same institution serves the purpose of offering to the student and the surrounding community a course of study and a cultural life in all its fullness. But such co-existence must be based on the principle of a clear and resolute separation of the two spheres and on mutual understanding of, and respect for, their autonomy. The aim of the university in fostering the arts as well as the sciences cannot be pursued successfully if this principle is not understood, if mutual understanding of the legitimate and vital autonomy of the two spheres is wanting.

There is little danger that the presence of artists in the American university threatens the autonomy of scholarship, but there are disturbing signs that the overwhelming prestige of scholars, and particularly of scientists in a technological age, causes uneasiness and a feeling of inferiority among the artists in the university. The most conspicuous sign is the attempt of artists to establish the same degrees which for centuries have served chiefly to document scholarly competence. It matters little whether composers attempt to create a Ph.D. or a special "Doctor of Music" degree in composition; the two points worthy of consideration are these: 1) in the whole history of music competence in musical composition has never been in need of a Doctor's degree of any kind, 2) American composers working in the university begin to feel that they should be able to award the same degrees as do their colleagues in scholarly disciplines.

The attempt to equalize the artist's degrees with those of the scholar may be the beginning of the breakdown of art's autonomy in the sphere of the university. Any move in this direction may ultimately destroy whatever benefits to the arts may have accrued from the presence of artists in the academic community. Either the doctorate for composers is a serious degree, in which case the true goals of the artist are distorted and falsified by assimilating them to those of the scholar in a sincere effort to justify the new degree; or it is a pseudo-degree in which case it cheapens the academic process and the legitimacy of academic degrees while adding unnecessarily years to the composer's training. The demand for degrees inconsistent with the nature of the subject matter creates a situation in which sincerity and insincerity in the establishment of the new curriculum are equally fatal.

Surely, a situation such as this justifies a critical examination of the arguments used in favor of establishing a Doctor's degree for composers. Let us begin with the argument concerning the traditional place of musical composition in the American university.

It is true that composers occupied the early chairs of Music in this country: Paine at Harvard (1875), Parker at Yale (1894), MacDowell at Columbia (1896). These men did not need a Doctor's degree to be admitted as teachers to great American universities. They were invited to join distinguished faculties on account of their talents as composers. As soon as doctorates in Music were given in this country, the composers, who presumably developed the program for this new degree, recognized that a Doctor's degree in Music demanded more than a composition. The first three candidates for the Ph.D. in Music at Harvard submitted both a thesis and a composition (Coerne, 1905; Davison, 1908; Clapp, 1911).

Has the place of composers in American universities changed between 1875 and 1963? The answer is, yes, without a doubt. Whereas in 1875 only one great university had a composer, today, in 1963, every major and most minor universities, indeed, even most colleges, have composers on their staffs. Is the immense number of composers at American universities due to the fact that American composers spent their time in acquiring a Doctor's degree? The number of composers with Doctor's degrees at American universities is very small indeed. What does this mean? It proves that the cultural function of composers in our universities has reached an eminence and a recognition unheard of before and, may I add, unknown in any other country in the world; an eminence that is reflected in the fact that no university worthy of its name can do without composers.

This, I think, is an indisputable fact. In the face of this, how serious is the complaint that young composers with an M.A. cannot compete successfully with young music historians who boast a Ph.D? This complaint, I am afraid, is not based on indisputable facts. One of the troubles with this argument is that it has never been proved. Against the claim that this or that young composer has not found a job one can point to this or that young musicologist who has not found a job either. No survey exists proving that there are more musicologists with Ph.D.s holding university positions than performers, theorists, and composers without a Ph.D. I frankly doubt that this is the case. At any rate, we should not be willing to accept guesswork for fact and much less should we be willing to institute a degree for the sake of economic competition when no proof exists that composers without a Ph.D. cannot compete successfully. Whether we should be willing to institute such a degree if the economic facts claimed were true, is another question, and to my mind, a more significant one. I shall return to it in due time.

Another argument concerns students of supposedly high intellectual and musical capacity whose interests do not lead them into historical research and who are for this reason, it is claimed, stopped short of their full development, since they cannot go on to a doctoral degree. Is full artistic and intellectual development possible only within a doctoral program, and must, or even can, it occur while the student attends the University? Is not the opposite true that full development of any mind, scholar's or artist's, occurs usually years after the possessor of that mind has left the nest of academic or artistic nurseries? Is it not further true that the composer, more essentially than the historian, and more strongly the better he is, needs freedom earlier? I shall return also to this point later.

With the next argument we come to the one point that is behind the whole movement: economic competition. To compete successfully for positions as academic teachers, it is claimed, composers must have a Doctor's degree. To this central point let me remark: the documentation for this presumed fact has always been haphazard, fragmentary, onesided. It is asserted that at many institutions instructors in music without a doctoral degree stand a notch lower on the pay scale than those with a Ph.D. But no such discrimination exists on the great campuses of this country where composers enjoy equal status and pay at all great Universities and at innumerable colleges. Indeed, there are institutions—Harvard is one, Mills is another—where composers have occupied special chairs with a salary exceeding that of the ordinary professor with a Ph.D. degree. In short, no study is available to prove the correctness of this claim on a national basis, and I must state my complete skepticism of the claim that a majority of higher institutions in this country work on that basis or move in that direction.

Another argument defends the institution of a Ph.D. for composers on the grounds that not to have Ph.D. students of their own constitutes discrimination against the composer in his academic work at the University. To this argument allow me the nostalgic commentary: Time was when professors existed to teach students, when a new curriculum was devised, because new things needed to be learned that could not be learned in the old curriculum, when a new degree was the result of the new curriculum. This argument proposes to turn the academic world upside down. It runs as follows: Professors are equal. The training of Ph.D.s is an ancient prerogative of professors. Therefore, if composers happen to be professors, their equality demands that a Ph.D. degree be instituted for composers. In other words, students now exist to satisfy a professor's claim for equality.

It would not be fair to put this way of thinking at the doorstep of the composer in general. In the years that I have been teaching I have heard many of them utter the wish to have more time to compose, but only very rarely have I heard anyone of them express the feeling that without a Ph.D. for composers in the curriculum his position as an academic teacher was underprivileged. In my judgment the composers in an academic department exercise a function far exceeding that of training composers, which alone would suffice to justify their work. They are in charge of the musical training of all students; they impart to that training an acuteness, a liveliness, and standards of artistic quality that spring from their constant translation of musical craft into musical art in their own work. In particular, they are responsible for the musical side of the musicologist's training, they participate also in his historical training by lecturing on contemporary as well as historical subjects and figures, they participate in committee work in the oral examinations, they participate in thesis work, and their presence is an invaluable asset in reminding our students in musicology of the composer's point of view even in historical problems.

In presenting my own views on the issue I shall assume for the sake of argument, although it has not been proved, that, indeed, composers without a doctoral degree find it hard to secure jobs at conditions equal to those of a professor with a Ph.D. It has been pointed out that professional administrators assume increasingly more important and powerful roles in hiring new personnel, and that since they themselves are seldom able to judge the professional training and qualifications of the candidates they must rely for that on the Doctor's degree by an institution. But we must ask ourselves how we are going to operate a degree the legitimacy of which, even by its most ardent advocates, is argued chiefly on grounds of prestige, of economic competition, but not of educational necessity. I shall therefore now take up the question why I oppose a Ph.D. degree for composers and shall begin with discussing the very cogent point concerning the University administrator.

It has been claimed that our whole country is being run by a managerial class. This argument presents us with the additional fact that the direction of universities, the centers of learning and the nurseries of the liberal arts, likewise are increasingly being taken over by professional administrators, by managers, who rarely know much about either learning or the arts, who care instead about enrollment figures and about the externals of learning, such as impressive degrees. I am quite willing to go along with this assumption. But I am dumbfounded when we are asked to hand over our responsibilities as intellectuals, as educators, as scholars to the professional administrator—and mind you, without as much as a token of resistance, let alone the full-fledged battle which such a demand should logically entrain. Before we surrender, should we not ask a simple question: Who is leading in education, the educator or the administrator? Whose business is it to fix educational goals, to determine curricula, to decide on degrees; is it our business or that of the administrators? Does it not seem that we are being asked to institute a Doctor's degree for composers not because of the incompetence of our students in composition, but because of the incompetence of the administrators, who don't know what the package of our education contains, and who therefore insist on that package being wrapped uniformly and labelled uniformly? And nothing will do save Grade-A-labelling, in other words: a Ph.D. degree.

Ours is a nation of businessmen and of salesmen—and this is nothing to be ashamed of. In the history of civilization it has been the great trading nations that have developed the great cultures. But when the salesman, the manager, the administrator, the culturally incompetent starts interfering with the artist, the scholar, when he begins to set goals for us, is it then not time for us to stand up and resist such usurpation of power by the incompetent?

It has often been said that the teaching profession is a timid profession. Timidity, however, is hardly a sufficient word for the attitude we are counselled to take. We are asked to abdicate our leadership as educators in favor of the professional administrators and the budget makers. I deplore the adoption of a new degree in order to attract more students and thus to be assured of a continuing high budget. Our business is a continuing high standard of excellence in musical, compositional, musicological training. This is what we are here for. The budget is a secondary consideration. Suppose for one moment that the proposed Doctor's degree for composers does not attract the numbers of students hoped for—a quite likely possibility. It is difficult to see why then, on the strength of the same sacred budgetary considerations, we should not be asked to lower our standards, to give higher grades than is warranted, in short, to engage in a full-dress battle of survival with the "diploma mills." Once we yield to the wrong reasons there is no logical stopping point. The time to resist this sort of pressure is at the beginning. If indeed the professional administrator does not understand the nature of the arts and the impropriety of requiring doctorates for composers, then it is up to the professional musical organs, such as this one, and to the professional musical organizations to enlighten him.

We hear daily that we are living in a mass culture; we look down from our ivory tower into that mass culture and we deplore the inroads of commercialism on every facet of our civilization. Commercialism prostitutes our art, our movies, our theatre; it degrades our newspapers, our radio stations, our television; it levels mass opinion to conformity since few sponsors will tolerate the "controversial." Responsible educators claim that in some colleges as many as 75 percent of the students believe that the primary reason for going to college is to get a better job.

How can we deplore the increasing commercialization of our civilization and of the arts in particular, how dare we bemoan the fact that our own students look upon higher education primarily in terms of better jobs and a higher pay scale, if we ourselves are perfectly willing to institute a Doctor's degree for composers so as to assure them of better jobs and a higher pay scale?

Advocates of the Ph.D. in composition might point out that Fayrfax, in 1504, received a Doctor's degree from the University of Cambridge, and, in 1511, was made a doctor by the University of Oxford. Did this make him a better composer than Josquin des Prez who enjoyed no such distinction? They might further refer to the fact that in England composition is still the principal area for the Doctor of Music degree. But the only question that is at all relevant with reference to British practice is whether it resulted in giving Britain better composers. I am afraid that the answer to this question is not encouraging. Not a single one of the great composers who shaped the course of music in the 19th and 20th centuries was English. Indeed, the major figures in England itself were not those who obtained a doctoral degree. With the exception of Vaughan Williams, none of the following composers had a Doctor's degree: Frederic Delius, Edward Elgar—both virtually self-taught—Arthur Sullivan, William Walton, Arthur Bliss, Benjamin Britten—although several of them received a doctor honoris causa after having acquired fame. Nor should it go unmentioned that Handel, in 1733, refused a Doctor's degree from Oxford, whereas "Greene, his 'bellows-blower' at St. Paul's Cathedral about 1715, had received a Cambridge Doctor's degree, for setting Pope's 'Ode for St. Cecilia's Day' to music" (O.E. Deutsch, A Documentary Biography, London, 1955, p. 326).

To come to my main point, I believe that the institution of a Doctor's degree for composers will be injurious to the very thing it intends to promote: composition. Moreover, it will not heighten but lower the composer's prestige.

Let me explain these two points: normally it takes a composer six to seven years, and sometimes longer, until he acquires an M.A. degree. By that time he is 25 years old. Indeed, many students in composition are considerably older than that. Additional years will be needed for the Ph.D. degree. To justify the Ph.D. degree a number of disciplines have to be added to composition: at one Eastern University two languages are demanded, at another, aside from an ambitious compositional project, an essay and a complete mastery of the whole field of musical theory. Some demand furthermore that the prospective doctoral students in composition be sent to other departments for a broad study of the humanities, mathematics, etc. It seems to me that such a program must needs deflect the true composer from what he really wants to do and what he should be doing: composing. The more talent a composer has, the more intolerable such a straightjacket will be for him. But, conversely, the less talent he has the more easily might he subject himself to such a course of study. The danger is, indeed, that the talented composer will decide to do without the degree; the less talented composer will be called "doctor." How long will it take before those music departments which are seeking the good composers will look with suspicion upon those with the degree and will search instead for those with talent?

We might as well recognize that talent of the high order required in the creative arts cannot be regimented. A genuine Doctor's degree for composers cannot help but impede the true composer. And to this should be added the historical fact that almost all great composers have started young. Indeed, some of them were dead—and immortal—at the age at which our students will still struggle for a Doctor's degree.

I come to my second point: a Doctor's degree for composers will not heighten but lower the composer's prestige. The contemporary American trend of doctoral degrees for composers does not derive from the higher self-esteem, but, indeed, from an inferiority complex on the part of the composer and from an apparent lack of understanding of the two great strands out of which our civilization is woven—that of learning and that of the arts. Although the pattern of that civilization is a very complex one, although the two spheres frequently overlapped, on the whole, the title of "doctor" emerged as a symbol of learning, the title of "master" as a symbol of the arts. We are not promoting the arts by depriving the title "Master of Arts" of its dignity as the final degree for the artist within the academic community. The striving for a Doctor's degree for composers is nothing less than an insincere bow to the sciences motivated by the fact that without this symbol the composer cannot maintain his place in the university. Obviously, this is a futile grasp for the wrong sign, whereas what we should do is preserve the true essence of our art.

All of this leads up to one question: what is the real responsibility of a university music department in the cultural life of our nation? It is, I believe, to uphold the university as the one center of musical culture in which commercialism of any sort, economic considerations of all varieties, are held at bay; where musical composition and musical scholarship are cultivated with single-minded devotion, for their own sake, not for the sake of a job, not for the sake of better pay, nor that of greater prestige. Job, pay, prestige are by no means negligible entities, but in the sphere of the university they should be distinctly secondary, they should be by-products of talent and achievement, not primary goals sufficient in themselves to cause the institution of new degrees and new curricula. Nor should the justified concern for the future of our students lead us to the belief that every one of them must find a position in college or university—and that immediately upon leaving his Alma Mater. If some of our students fail to achieve this goal, must we therefore equip all of them with a Doctor's degree in the mistaken belief that this will make them irresistible to the college administrator? We shall always have some students who are serious and hardworking and thoroughly nice persons but lacking in some qualities needed for a successful university career. If their years of study will enrich their lives and give meaning and content to their hours of leisure, while they are making a living outside of the university, is this a negligible reward? Are we not adopting an unhealthy attitude of overprotection and overinsurance? Are we not degrading the university by making it into an institution of welfare and charity, a sort of elevated union shop that guarantees a job for each member?

There are risks even in becoming a union member or a shop-keeper. Are we trying to eliminate risks for the student of the arts altogether? One of the most original figures in American music was a man who earned his living as an insurance broker, who composed only in his hours of leisure, whom Arnold Schonberg called "a great Man": Charles Ives. What a fine irony that this man, working in a business designed to reduce risks, should have taken the incredible risk of composing sonatas and symphonies of an entirely unconventional character without holding a great position as composer anywhere, without encouragement from the official musical life of his country, without a circle of musical friends—in fantastic solitude!

Figures such as Charles Ives will always be rare. But we ought to remember them. For the striving to make a doctor out of every composer, and a university professor out of every doctor, and a success out of every artist, may spell the doom of genuine art no less than an atmosphere of neglect of the arts.

2136 Last modified on November 15, 2018