The Ph.D. in Composition
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 Peter Eliot Stone. 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 question at hand, the validity and desirability of granting a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Composition, exists against the background of certain established facts: 1) a large and increasing percentage of those who study music in this country go to the University for their training; 2) the American composer is already in the University; this phenomenon cannot be restricted to a special group of composers academically oriented for good or ill; 3) the total spectrum of music training is present in all ranges of competence and style.
Why then would a young composer want to obtain such a degree and would the special kind of thesis that a composer is uniquely capable of producing be appropriate for it? It is now clear from the latest experiences of composers with terminal master's degrees that the noble attempt on the part of some university administrations to withstand the demand for the Ph.D. requirement in the hiring of composers has failed. Department heads wanting to hire young composers of whose qualifications they were highly convinced, these young composers sometimes from the most prestigious universities in the country, were frustrated in these attempts; the administrations have been demanding the Ph.D. And if occasionally a strong-minded department head would succeed, it would be most difficult, if not impossible, both to keep the man he has hired and to get promotions for him.
The group of high-minded composers, including some of the finest and most influential of the established group, who have opposed the necessity for a Ph.D. have done so on the grounds that to obtain it would be incompatible with the necessary activity in these important formative years that would result in the kind of knowledge a composer must acquire. (Indeed there may perhaps be objection on their part to my use of the term knowledge in this context). Some of the most important of these composers have recently changed their minds, on a facts-of-life basis. I would like to go further and suggest that a Ph.D. program in composition need not be incompatible with the training which should be acquired by a creative artist in musical composition.
Few would disagree that there is a transferable body of knowledge that composers have traditionally learned from other composers. There have been a few who have had to learn it for themselves, but learn it they did. We silently acknowledge this assertion by allowing composition to exist as both graduate and undergraduate study in universities. In attempting to stop this area of concentration just short of the Ph.D. we are asserting that the nature of Ph.D. work is qualitatively different from work at earlier levels. One hears it said that the degree is scholarly, factual. But if this refers to facts of first-order verifiability, then this is scarcely true of mathematics and the physical sciences, and perhaps not totally true even of those fields which emphasize textual and historical research, such as the liberal arts. Depth and triviality are debatable in mathematics even as they are in musical composition. The misunderstanding of great, original thinkers is not restricted to our field, as attested to by the reception of the work of the great 19th century mathematician Georg Kanter by another great mathematician of the time, Poincaré. Even in historical research in musicology one hears distinguished professors at important universities say that the work of distinguished professors at equally important universities is trivial or worthless; surely even this field insists upon evaluation that goes beyond the first-order facts involved. In any of these fields, as in musical composition, though mistakes will continue to be made, we ultimately must accept the word of those senior faculty members who are in an authoritative position at the time.
The nature of the dissertation would seem to be problematic. A musical composition would by definition be necessary, but would it be sufficient? The parallel which leaps to mind is the acceptance of those theorems in mathematics which are not accompanied by statements about them, or in the terminology of logic, in the metalanguage. The question of size has arisen with these also, and I have been assured by a most eminent mathematician that important theorems of great depth have existed that were no longer than a page in length and yet have been accepted as theses. (So much for whether Webern would be a suitable candidate.) In defense of the composition alone as thesis, it might be suggested that there have been highly competent artists who could not talk about what they had done. But the condition of competence in talking about music is relevant in a university situation. Indeed we might use this as an opportunity to insist upon greater meaningfulness, coherence and definability about such talk.
The large group of students who come to study music in the University examines compositions (let us not forget that the works of Beethoven and Bach are compositions) with the disciplines of historical research. Might it be suggested that the examination of compositions is not only a field of historical studies; that the important role that the historian has to play is merely a part of it? This examination requires knowledge of a language which has a syntax which can be inferred and formulated on a generalized level. The individual events of a composition are the product of a decision-making process on the part of one who has a particular talent for making decisions in unique instances, that is a composer. Those who are gifted in inferring the generalized syntax of a composition or body of compositions are theorists. These two groups, composers and theorists, have occasionally been the same, but not always. The composer's metalinguistic statement need not be that of which a professional theorist would be capable and it would almost certainly not fall into that realm which is occasionally confused with theory: metatheory or the theory of constructing theoretical systems. This should allay the fears of those who insist that the composer and theorist need not be the same. The collaboration of these four fields: composition, theory, metatheory and history, clearly defined, might put talk about music on a firmer footing than now exists. And this would open the way for the composer to study what is directly relevant to his work for his advanced degree rather than to be forced to take the degree in some related field such as the investigation of historical, textual or paleographical problems.
Why not allow music to be one of the first fields to insist upon higher standards in what is said about it in the University. Let us consider the Ph.D. in Composition an opportunity rather than a fact-of-life.