Thoughts on the Ph.D. in Music Composition

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This article was part of a Symposium entitled The Doctorate in Composition. Other contributors to this Symposium were Edward E. Lowinsky, Arthur Mendel, Henry Leland Clarke, Robert Middleton, George Rochberg, 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.

 

The economic plight of the contemporary composer necessitated, we are told, the decision to grant a Ph.D. in composition. The subsequent furor in Academia (and the amusement in some compositional circles) has created an atmosphere that smacks of good old Uncle Toby's fortifications. As in any battle, the ideologies are not a little tautological, and Chauvinism's to the fore.

The skirmish proceeds: 1) today, the serious composer must look to the university for economic assistance; 2) the university tends to honor with employment those who have academic degrees or who have established themselves in their fields of endeavor; 3) the composer's training in composition is essentially nonacademic; 4) the Ph.D. implies scholarship, research, memory, analysis, and logic, but few would insist that it also presupposes creativity of a compositional nature; ultimately, the scholar peers in from outside music; 5) in attempting to reconcile these problems, a well-meaning neutral has initiated a program in which the student, in order to be granted a Ph.D. in composition, must submit, in addition to writing an original composition, a study of method, a theoretical dissertation. The reason for this approach, presumably, is to make of the degree recipient a scholar as well as a composer.

A reconnaissance of the battle lines may reveal a plan of attack by which we could penetrate the dense forest of confusion. On the other hand, we might well find areas of potential disturbance not visible to us now.

1) The serious composer need not look only to the university. He has many avenues open to him. He may write incidental music for the theater, for the films, for television, and for industrial shows. He may arrange or copy music, write program notes, produce recording sessions, and conduct performances here and there. He may teach in secondary private schools, in music schools, on a private basis, or, with a degree in education, in the public school systems. In short, he may do whatever a thoroughly prepared musician ought to be able to do. But can he? Some of these fields do require training not usually associated with serious study in composition. Even with the necessary preparation, the composer will discover that these fields have little room for newcomers. Despite the requisite training and talent, the composer also needs to have personal contacts in some of these areas. Once he succeeds in becoming a commercial musician, not much time will be left for him to compose a string quartet or an electronic work. Because of this futility, he finally seeks the university, and tries to become a teacher. He believes that: a) he will have more time to compose; b) he can offer his musical knowledge, or, at the very least, an affinity with the artist and his creative processes, to the students. Whether or not he is justified in his beliefs is not germane to the argument. At the point that he decides to become a teacher, he has made a compromise.

2) If he is to teach, what is he to teach? Unless he receives a position as "composer-in-residence" and is expected to teach only composition, he must have the necessary background to teach theory or musicology. He must meet the university on its own ground. If the university feels a cultural obligation to support creative talent either directly by commission, or indirectly by offering teaching positions, it would appear only fair, at first glance, to commission, or to accept for a teaching post, one who has some tangible means of proving his ability. A degree of some kind, or preeminence in the field, do not seem to be unreasonable requirements, for who is to judge the abilities of the man who has no degree or renown? Can the average theoreticians or musicologists, whose eyes are on the past, who have pet theories or favorite periods and whose aesthetics must be linked inextricably with their theories and periods, judge the work of a contemporary composer? (I recall a graduate class on the analysis of contemporary music in which the professor continually found, in the melodic and harmonic configurations of the Bartokian cadence, reminiscences of the Burgundian school.) Compare the number of musicologists that attend the ISCM or Schuller concerts with the number of those who are present at the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque programs. The disparity should prove the point. Can they, who cannot attend concerts of contemporary music because their own work leaves them little time, possibly have a solid frame of reference with which to compare unknown works by unknown composers? Can they, who evidence, at most, a toleration for music of the past fifty years, perceive the quality of today's visionary? Today's visionary hasn't had the chance to establish himself for fifty years as have Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Stravinsky. How many composers can have achieved recognition by the same age that one usually receives a doctorate? Those composers of the so-called younger generation who have received acclaim are in their forties or fifties and generally represent the rear-guard.

If the part of a composition that we like least does in fact constitute the uniqueness of the work—indeed, the author's primary contribution to the art—recognition of its value must come late. Its composer stands little chance of gaining a chair of music because of his individuality and his refusal to compromise with the conventions of his day. In such a situation, the university, by accepting for teaching positions only those who have degrees or have achieved some renown, can foster only an unhealthy conservatism in music.

3) Though the disciplines may develop his skill, though they may broaden and intensify his perception, the essential—talent—cannot be taught the composer.

4) If one increases the number, range, and depth of theory and analysis courses until the required points for a doctorate have been accumulated, and if one follows the acquisition of points with a satisfactory comprehensive examination and dissertation in theory, then the Ph.D. should be in theory. If the dissertation is in musicology, the Ph.D. should be in that area. If an original composition is substituted for the dissertation, however, the old problem still remains: Who is competent to judge it?

5) The attempt at reconciliation appears to make the issues more complex. Even in the realms of theory and history, closer by nature to tangible facts than is composition, interpretation of these very facts causes bitter discussion. The disputants engage in high-level name-calling, ridiculing in class and in the professional journals the arguments of their opponents. How then is a composition to be judged fairly when partisanship and cliques cause battles within the ranks of composers themselves? Need one call to mind Rameau vs. Lully, Gluck vs. Piccinni, Brahms vs. Wagner, Les Six vs. Wagner, Hindemith vs. Schoenberg, and the more recent confused embarrassment of Stravinsky's disciples when the schism with the serialists was bridged? When, in addition, the composer attempts to ambush the musicology student and the musicologist reciprocally tries to undermine the composition student, how can one seriously talk about objective evaluation?

On what basis should the composition be judged? What should be its length—that of the Symphony by Webern, or that of a Mahler symphony? Should it be a symphony, a string quartet, or a concerto? What about an opera? One-acter, or three-acter? Song Cycle? Solo violin, violin and piano, chorus, orchestra, or tape-recorder?

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the problem of judging the composition may be overcome, and that, as part of the solution to the plight of the composer, the original composition be admitted as one of the requirements for the Ph.D. in composition. The usual compromise offered would have the student write a theoretical or musicological dissertation in addition. In order to accomplish this goal satisfactorily, the composer would have to take classes to prepare himself for both the comprehensive examination and the dissertation. Certainly, any musical study can benefit the composer. The bright composer will find any materials valuable even though they may show him only what not to do. After all, how many classes in composition could the composer take? But this raises what should be to the academically-minded a familiar pedagogical problem: is not composing the most valuable way to learn how to compose? Should not the student write as much as possible? How, though, in a graduate program, can he find the time to write if he must spend so much time in the library preparing for classes, papers, and examinations? He surely will find some time to compose, but will it be sufficient to give him a Ph.D. in composition? And why, when all is said and done, should a degree requiring a dissertation in theory or musicology be called a Ph.D. in composition? Is this doctorate granted in recognition of a fine musical work or is it, rather, bestowed in recognition of a fine theoretical method of composing?

The reconnaissance over, the arguments appear to me to have been marshalled on the wrong battlefield. The muster had better take place while we keep our eyes on the roster of the future. If most universities in this country were to offer a Ph.D. in composition (and once the practice were given impetus by one of the prestige institutions, it would be only a matter of time before others, with faculties of lesser competence, followed suit), most of the composers who today refuse to march in academic regalia would likewise refuse to do so tomorrow. Those who today bitterly feel that the university owes them a debt would feel the same way tomorrow. But those composers who today compromise with a Ph.D. in musicology or theory would not be forced to do so any longer. Imagine, then the hordes, newly armed with the doctorate in composition, many judged by musicians of little if any competence to evaluate creative talent. Imagine these hordes descending upon music departments all over the country, scrambling for jobs some ten years hence, and brandishing their newly received weapons for storming the citadel of the teaching fraternity. Instruments of war become obsolete before they reach the. hands for which they were destined, and such must be the case with the Ph.D. in composition.

The original problem is an economic one. The proposed solution will create a similar, if not more serious, problem.

At the root of all these problems gnaws the fundamental question: Is the composer with a degree a better composer than the one without a degree?

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Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

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