Music in Higher Education in Italy and the United States: The Pros and Cons of Tradition and Innovation

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Toward the beginning of this century, the German sociologist Max Weber had the opportunity to visit the United States. He later wrote about his American experience in a charming essay entitled Wissenschaft als Beruf (The Intellectual Profession as a Vocation; Berlin, 1919).1 Weber was a keen observer of social customs and gave an insightful, as well as humorous, description of the differences between academic life in Europe and in the New World. He was convinced that the United States provided the perfect antithesis to the Germany of his times.

He noticed, among other things, that German professors were put somewhat on a pedestal by their students, while American professors were not. Whereas in Germany college students expected from their teachers a "Weltanschauung," an entire philosophy of life and a moral code of behavior, their American counterparts expected from their professors only practical knowledge and technical skills. Possession of those skills would help them in their professional growth and—most of all—in landing a good job. American students, according to Weber, were aware of the fact that their parents paid for the educators' salaries. Professors, in a way, were in the business of selling knowledge (a merchandise like any other). From this came probably that familiarity between faculty and the student body that is typical of the United States and so unusual in Europe. Whereas in the Germany of those days a professor was a Guru, in America, according to Weber, he was almost a merchant. Oddly enough, he seemed to appreciate some of the advantages inherent in this "mercantile" condition. A professor who was only expected to impart skills and knowledge after all, was unlikely to ever become a demagogue or a political activist, something that Weber intensely disliked and considered unethical. That was often the case in Europe. Other consequences of the fact that American higher education was integrated into the Nation's economic machinery were that it was responsive to public opinion and, therefore, at least in the best of cases, able to fulfill new social and educational needs when they arose.

In Germany and in Italy, my native country, the situation was and still is considerably different. Though a number of things have changed over the years, many old attitudes persist even today. The differences between European and American education may not have increased since then, but they do not seem to have decreased either. In fact divergent philosophies about the purpose of higher education still prevail on the opposite shores of the Atlantic. In Europe school is essentially elitist and not practically-oriented (though it has now to cope with the problems of mass education); in the United States it is tendentially democratic and empirical. Such attitudes inevitably translate into the way the curriculum is organized. Europeans of my generation, therefore, went through an educational process that made them, for better or worse, remarkably different animals from their American counterparts.

The following statements concerning musical matters could apply to a large degree to other fields of artistic endeavor. In Italy, as in other Southern European countries, music has traditionally been taught only in conservatories. Outside of conservatories there are few opportunities to learn it; and one would not enroll in a conservatory unless he intended to make music a career.

Similarly, it is difficult for conservatory students to have access to a college education unless they manage to attend high school at the same time. An important Education Act of 1923 by Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944) excluded from college Art Academy graduates, or graduates from any other school providing a professional training. Gentile was a very influential philosopher who, during the early years of Fascism, became Minister of Education. The gap between the theory and the practice of an art or a craft, which had been all along part of the aristocratic, liberal upbringing, was in this way institutionally sanctioned. Even the teaching of scientific and technological subjects—which Gentile and the equally influential Benedetto Croce (1866-1952; perhaps the most important Italian philosopher of the time) thought to be of minor importance—is such that students seldom get much "hands-on" experience. Education, after all, is not to be acquired for practical purposes, according to the old philosophy, but rather for its own sake, and for the sake of developing a rounded personality.

In college the scholarly study of music—viewed as a significant part of culture and human behavior—did not really exist in Italy until recently. Only now is it being slowly and progressively accepted. Indeed the Education Act of 1923 (the Riforma Gentile, as it is called in Italy) re-emphasized the entrenched philosophy that sees music and the arts as detached from the mainstream of humanistic culture and scientific research. Apart from a slight increase of emphasis on such activities as drawing and singing in high schools, the arts were essentially absent from the curriculum. They were almost totally relegated to professional schools where only the craft—rather than its history and relation to other societal activities and values—was taught.2 To this day higher education in Italy is based on a dichotomy between "humanistic education" on the one hand, and "professional/technical training" on the other, a dichotomy which had its roots in the idealistic philosophy of the nineteenth century.

Conservatories (from the Italian conservare, "to preserve/protect"), were originally charity schools taking care of foundlings and orphans who were taught a trade (music was at first only one of many crafts being taught). Such were the Ospedale della pietà in Venice (where Vivaldi was the music instructor) and the Conservatorio dei poveri di Gesù Cristo in Naples.3 Conservatories are, needless to say, performance-oriented. Given their practical aim they cannot afford to supply a general education, and must take the cultural values of music for granted. The student, therefore, should already possess a general education or should acquire one at institutions best suited for this purpose. That is simply not feasible for most people.

In Italian conservatories, to make matters worse, even music history is dealt with rather superficially. It is often presented without proper relation to the music performed. No wonder, therefore, that these schools often turn out trained technicians who do not have the intellectual grasp of what they perform. Many students are required to take a course in Letteratura poetica e drammatica in order to be acquainted with those literary works that found their way into music history, usually as operatic librettos. Better than nothing. Instrumentalists are also required to pass an exam of Cultura musicale generale, which is a misnomer, since candidates are asked only specific questions about the technical make-up of their instruments. If they are flutists they will be questioned about the improvements made on their instrument by Ziegler, Briccialdi, Böhm, etc. So much for "general education."

Universities, which ultimately derive from the casual mingling of scholars on the streets of twelfth century European cities, provide the proper setting for the study of the arts as a cultural and social phenomenon. That is usually achieved, but perhaps to the excess. A college student who takes a music history course in Italy, in fact, receives no technical information about music making and practice, but rather historical and aesthetic doctrines. No "Music Appreciation," no teaching of what the musical forms are, no "Introduction to the Art of Music" and, certainly, no history of the craft: only the history of aesthetic concepts, and the biographies of musicians.

In the United States this approach is often reversed. Even a college course in music history is often taught with little or no reference to history itself, to literature, or to philosophy. To present Beethoven without mentioning the French revolution would not only seem to be difficult to do, but would also be misleading to the student. Even traditional periodizations such as Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism and Romanticism can hardly be explained without reference to literature and the fine arts. But this is nevertheless very often done.

It would be desirable to strike the happy medium. In college some knowledge should be given to students in the humanities about the process of music-making. In conservatories, on the other hand, the professional musician ought to learn how his art relates to the others and how it developed and adapted to the needs of social life.

In Italy education is centralized and dependent on the Ministry of Education (and thus it is, to various degrees in France, Britain and throughout most of Europe). This practice dates, as far as universities are concerned, from the Casati Bill of 1859-60. The Bill established that college-level education could be given only in State Institutes, or in private institutes recognized by the Ministry (elementary, professional and high school education were already under centralized control).4 The endorsement is obtained on the basis of several considerations, and primarily the curriculum. State endorsement guarantees the quality of teaching and establishes standards, valid nationwide, for the hiring and promotion of teachers.

The disadvantage of State control is the considerable difficulty in bringing about change in the curriculum (approval of the Ministry is required). Conservatories should be geared to fulfill the ever changing needs of musical life, but it is very hard for them to do so.

Colleges are an entirely distinct sort of institution. In some of them music history can be studied, but in Italy no thorough training in musicology is ever offered there.5 In Germany, a country with a respectable musicological tradition, the practical study of music also takes place in conservatories. Colleges, on the other hand, are equipped to provide a thorough training in musicology, but give no elementary music instruction of any kind. Again, in the United States the situation is very different. The musicologist Manfred Bukofzer once observed:

The recognition of music as an academic subject in the undergraduate college is a rather recent and, we should add, a specifically American achievement. . . . This phenomenon is unique. Only in this country has the idea of a general musical education been combined with the comprehensive school system of an industrial and democratic society.6

Bukofzer was European by birth and education, but he lived and taught in the United States and became an American. He also observed that undergraduate musical education is not intended for the training of professional musicians but, rather, to foster more intelligent listening habits, in the same way as a general education seeks to produce a more intelligent and well-rounded person. The American concept of mass education in music, therefore, is not separate from that of music as a liberal art, of music as part of the humanities.7 The liberal arts were in fact so called in antiquity and in the Middle Ages because they embraced the knowledge and the activities of the free man (in Latin, vir liber), as opposed to the mechanical arts (in Latin, serviles) that were suitable for slaves. No doubt, part of the idea was the conviction that knowledge makes man free. We know how important education for music was considered to be in the Renaissance. Castiglione's The courtier (1528) clearly says that a gentleman's education would be incomplete without some ability in music (it is known however, that in those times few gentlemen had the intellectual sophistication desired by Castiglione). But education "for music" requires a certain degree of education "in music." This is what European higher education lacks.

In Italy, and in other Southern European countries, until recently there was no music education from the elementary grades through high school. This delay in introducing it can be attributed to historical factors. An important one is probably the almost total absence in those countries (Italy, Spain, France) of a religious choral tradition based on folk music such as was experienced during and after the Renaissance by the Reformed churches of Germany, Switzerland and the Anglo-Saxon countries (folk music was virtually unknown in Italy, even to scholars, until the early 1950s).

The curriculum of Italian conservatories is also notably different from what we have in the United States.8 The curriculum, moreover, has not changed very much over the past one hundred years. The one which is operative today dates from before World War II but, as the emphasis on the practice of figured bass shows, it inherited much older features. Also it allows no electives. Each graduate goes through the same training regardless of the school he attends. Composers takes four years of intensive four-part harmony writing (in the old keys, naturally), three years of strict counterpoint, and three years of orchestration and "free" composition. On the side there is piano, score reading at the instrument, and organ (improvisation, at least to a minimal degree).

The craft is also taught with minimal verbalization. In fact, while I was studying in Italy I never heard of such a thing as a "sonata form." When I came to the United States I did. Immediately I took from the shelves the old and dusty pieces I had written for my teacher and, to my surprise, many of them were indeed sonatas. They had an exposition, a development and a recapitulation; I was quite unaware of that at the time of their writing. My teacher, like many of his generation, was a fundamentally uneducated person, but he knew the craft remarkably well. He would habitually suggest that his students read some music, say a quartet by Cherubini, and then try to write something similar. In discussing our attempts at composition he would only use a few adjectives: "correct" or "incorrect," "tasteful" or "poor taste." His approach to the teaching of composition is still widespread. Few Italian composers are familiar with musical analysis, few indeed are even aware of the existence of Schenker.

In our Western culture the ability to express oneself verbally is most often equated with intelligence itself, and erroneously so. Some aspects of human intelligence can only be expressed otherwise.9 Many composers—and my teacher was a case in point—are unable to say anything worth hearing about music, and sometimes even about their own music. Music, after all, can be and is traditionally taught in many non-European cultures through osmosis, or imitation, rather than through verbal interaction. There may be an advantage in "growing into" a musical practice rather than being "talked into" it. Analysis requires detachment. What is an object of observation cannot be at the same time second nature. A musician who is guided by analytical concerns does not produce music ''as naturally as breathing," so to say. The keen interest that German composers have shown for the development of musical form and architecture may after all suggest that a meaningful configuration of musical ideas did not come to them quite spontaneously. But that is probably an Italian prejudice.10

It would be hard, however, to imagine a composer like Bellini being tormented with "musical form." Still his "Casta Diva" is a remarkably well organized tune, where every section flows very naturally and meaningfully into the next one.

I wish, however, to qualify my statement by saying that no one could reasonably overestimate the import of analysis in almost every area of musical scholarship. What I am saying is simply that, just as we consciously learn the grammar and syntax of our native language after learning to speak it, it would probably make sense to teach musical theory only after the student has developed some basic abilities in performance and composition.

In conclusion I would like to stress that European education, because of its rigidity, allows an accurate transmission of traditional values and skills. The craft of music is probably taught best by compelling the student to go through a grinding mill of pedantic, old-fashioned drills. In Bologna today, the student can obtain essentially the same kind of training that Donizetti was given by Padre Mattei. That form of instruction was already old-fashioned in Donizetti's time, and it is even more so today. The technical procedures of contemporary music, however, are not yet systematized to the point where they can be made a nationwide standard. American education, on the other hand, where innovation is an almost daily occurrence, has the power of forming musicians who are in tune with society to a degree unthinkable of in Europe. It also provides a high professional standard in those areas in which it is demanded, whether it be jazz or Renaissance music performed on original instruments, or music education (for all of these there is a market).11

Schools must survive economically, and if they fail to attract students they may have to close down.12 While it is at times regrettable that education be linked to mercantile considerations, there is little doubt that total independence from the marketplace generates isolation and estrangement from the real world. The Italian case shows it very clearly. There is a need for scientific research, especially where technological breakthroughs are feasible, and colleges are unable to fulfill that need. There is a need for a variety of music, and conservatory graduates can provide only one kind. It would indeed be marvelous if we could have the best of both worlds.


1Max Weber (1864-1920) was one of the most influential sociologists and political economists of all time. He is mostly known for Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5) where, opposing the Marxian view of the pre-eminence of economic factors, he emphasized the role of religious values and ideologies in shaping societies.

2A detailed and critical discussion of the philosophy of Giovanni Gentile—who belongs to the school of thought that in Europe was called "neo-idealism"—can be read in H.S. Harris, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960).

3For historical information about Italian conservatories and their origins, cf. Salvatore di Giacomo, Il conservatorio di Sant'Onofrio a Capuana e quello di S.M. della Pietà dei Turchini (Palermo: Remo Sandron, 1924) and, by the same author, Il conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo e quello di S. Maria di Loreto (Ibidem, 1928).

4In 1859, Italy was not yet a unified country. The Casati Bill, therefore, was originally promulgated for the Kingdom of Piedmont and later extended to cover the annexed territories of the Peninsula.

5There are now two notable exceptions, the Dipartimento delle Arti, della Musica e dello Spettacolo of the Universita di Bologna, where several musicological subjects are taught and where one can obtain a Doctorate with a music major (this is the only case, to my knowledge where the concept of "major" is applied in an Italian college), and the Doctorate in Musicology offered by an Institute of the Università di Vicenza which is located in Cremona. It is peculiar that in a country like Italy where one can get a doctorate in 72 different subjects (cf. Corriere della Sera, Sept. 22, 1982, p. 14), one can study musicology only in Cremona.

6The Place of Musicology in American Institutions of Higher Learning (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957), p. 5.

7The Liberal Arts, belonging to the so-called "Quadrivium" were: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. With the disciplines of the "Trivium" (Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectic) they constituted in Medieval schools the preparation for the study of Philosophy and Theology.

8Detailed information about the curriculum can be found in G. Colarizi, L'insegnamento della musica in Italia (Roma: Armando, 1967, 1971).

9After many years of I.Q. tests, suitable to measure verbal and mathematical intelligence, psychologists are coming to the realization that there are after all "different kinds" of intelligence, some of them unrelated to each other. Cf., for instance, Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983). Such discoveries are having some echo in the popular press (e.g. Sharon Begley, "Redefining Intelligence," Newsweek (November 14, 1983), 123.

10For an Italian point of view on musical form, see Marcello Sorce Keller, "A 'Bent for Aphorisms': Some Remarks about Music and about his own Music by Gian Francesco Malipiero," The Music Review XXXIX, No. 2-3 (1978), 231-239.

11Since until recently in Italy there was no music education in schools, there was no need for teachers. Now that some music education has been introduced in elementary and junior high, conservatories are unable to supply musicians who have some background in pedagogy and child psychology.

12It is quite surprising for Europeans to realize that American colleges function pretty much as firms acting in a free market and, therefore, affected by the law of supply and demand.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

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