The German Model in Music Curricula

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Recently, I was asked to review an article submitted for publication in a professional journal in which the author, unknown to me, noted the omission of Black composers from the study of music history and the exclusion of jazz and other ethnic musical expressions from theory and literature courses normally a part of music curricula. The article was fair and evenhanded in its treatment and summarized the now familiar arguments in behalf of such issues. When I finished I thought the author had missed the point, rather like describing the symptoms of a disease but not its underlying cause. I thought no more about it until I read an article by Professor Jon Appleton1 of Dartmouth lamenting conditions many colleges and universities face, namely dwindling enrollments, concern over the quality of applicants, and the viability of the curricular content students experience while in school. But Professor Appleton hinted at the cause rather than at a symptom when he noted,

. . . the music curriculum at most institutions of higher education. . . is based on a musical culture of which only remnants still exist, and has little relevance to music in the last half of the twentieth century. In short our approach to teaching the history, theory, performance, and composition of music, at all levels, is reactionary and of little value to either liberal-arts students or young musicians with professional aspirations.

Professor Appleton's claim focuses on the musical curriculum, which is closer to the mark than the other article, but still skirts the fundamental issuethose unconscious assumptions underlying the organization of curricular offerings and the paradigm or model that serves as a tacet frame of reference for curricular decisions. For it is the model we bring to our classes that guides our selection of literature and modes of analysis, thus defining the musical culture students come to know in their study. There is no term which summarizes this so I have borrowed one from American educational history, i.e. "The German Model," to explain our paradigm for theoretical and historical analysis of music. Time and space do not permit any lengthy treatment of the many facets of this model, but let me suggest two or three examples.

First, in the 1880s, American universities consciously grafted the German model of graduate education onto undergraduate curricula. A generation of Americans studied abroad and brought back the techniques of the empirical method to science and the German perspective on "wissenschaft" to music as well. Generally, these techniques were based on three principles. First, a work could be "known" only through detailed analyses of its structure (harmony, melody, form, etc.). The examination of the "thing as it is" must be conducted in isolation from all points of reference outside the guidelines of the strictly defined process being employed. In practice this meant a composer and his works were deemed worthy only if they met the criterion of increasing the storehouse of options within music—most often defined by German historians as the development of tonality and tonal forms. Second, there was a firm conviction in the linearity of history, the idea that all style elements and compositional techniques could be explained logically in terms of generational activity and influence. Third, and this has remained a hallmark of German scholarship, no theoretical or analytical authority could be claimed unless the entire corpus of known literature had been exhaustively examined. These three principles promoted atomistic analytical techniques that broke music down into its various elements and allowed issues of value to be decided on the basis of a composer's expansion of the possibilities inherent in a given element. Also, a chronicle of music history was constructed that confirmed a linear model inherent in the evaluative criteria.

From the 1880s until World War II, no one suggested our techniques for learning music should be otherwise. Not only had the German culture produced musicians of unquestioned genius, but these newly developed standards were providing the criteria for evaluation and studying new compositions as well as newly discovered works by pre-Enlightenment composers throughout Europe. Everyone tacitly assumed this model was sufficiently objective to be applied fairly to the judgement of musical works of other European and American nationalistic styles. Answers to questions about excellence and quality all bore the same frame of reference, attesting to the universality of the Western musical effort.

The fact that our educational system modeled the German one is hardly a new observation, but we should remember that these techniques of German scholarship had already sunk into the unconscious temperament of American education by the 1920s and '30s when the American Musicological Society, the National Association of Schools of Music, arid many other, professional organizations were formed. These atomistic techniques for "knowing" music provided the foundation for the standards these organizations would uphold (or is it impose?) for the next sixty years. The music curriculum as we know it today, "x" number of semesters of theory, history, applied study, etc., was instituted as an effort to standardize a curricular model in music schools that embodied these components. As programs expanded, the actions by these organizations and the models they developed for the training of musicians, theorists, historians, and teachers determined the structure and content of curricula, both undergraduate and graduate.

As an example of the depth of German influence, consider the expatriate German musicologists whose work formed the nucleus of Norton's first efforts to provide comprehensive historical texts for graduate and undergraduate use, that is Manfred Bukofzer, Alfred Einstein, and Gustav Reese, whose works exemplify the standards discussed above. Even Grout's text bears their stamp, expanded by his personal interests in 16th century Italian music and Scarlatti. As an undergraduate trying to learn about French Baroque composers, I learned little about Campra, Delalande, or Couperin, but much about Händel, Gluck, and the Bach sons who took the German model to other European capitols. Such perspectives would be expected of Reese and the others who were trained to teach German musical history to German students at German universities and who found themselves continuing their work on American soil as a result of political and intellectual oppression. Yet, Grout wrote for American universities and did not have those pressures. While his text became the best summary of music's journey into this century, it did not overcome the limitations of the German nationalistic perspective, but rather institutionalized it for two generations of students. (It should be understood that, while I respect both the author and his text, I only want to call attention to the assumptions which I believe underscored his effort.)

The German model clearly explains the last three hundred years of Western musical culture as the progression of tonality (pardon the pun) and the perfection of form. We have all spent hours finding unresolved dominant sevenths and reveling in the genius of Schubert and the Late Romantics as they took modulation from dominant/subdominant through mediant/submediant and supertonic ending with Schoenberg who rejects much of the process. Then we searched for row inversions and retrogrades as symbols of our sleuthing powers and as an indication that we were mastering the techniques of modern harmony. All joking aside, the acceptance of the evolution of tonality and tonal forms as the standard of reference for musical development provided clearcut criteria against which to analyze new works and to compare them to their predecessors (predominantly German ones). But the process also excluded works from those cultures choosing a different aesthetic approach. Again, I remember the problem some of my theory teachers had explaining the French delight in using series of unresolved sevenths or that nasty little M7 chord built on the supertonic. My teachers explained these as aberrations or idiosyncratic tendencies of specific schools of composition, thereby accommodating the composers by excluding them from the main development of history defined by the German model and preserving the "rules" of harmony established by it. (We all know the problem Jazz has faced because turn-of-the-century composer/performers never resolved sevenths downward, a clear indication they didn't understand tonal harmony.)

Finally, the dominance of German models for excellence can be seen in the works which most students study. My experience is that most undergraduate history tests make no reference to Italian, French, or English composers of the eighteenth century other than Vivaldi, Rameau, or Purcell who can be so easily incorporated into the German model (note Grout's first and second editions). Equally, Russian and the French composers of the twentieth century have been excluded because they chose to explore new applications of tonality. Since the German model labels tonality (post-1901 Schoenberg) bankrupt and defines the future as serialism and other twelve-tone techniques, most other Europeans and Americans remain marginally a part of the theoretical development of music. Note that the title of Grout's last chapter is "After Webern," attesting to the primacy of the German frame of reference. It is no wonder the only contemporary French composer most American students know is Pierre Boulez, the leading exponent of the French school of composition extending and expanding the theories of Arnold Schoenberg. In all fairness, let me say that there are references in Grout to Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Britten. But these individuals are selected in light of the overarching model and because their work cannot be denied. (Palisca even includes Steven Reich in his fourth edition of Grout.)

There are several outcomes of this "German Model" approach that affect our daily lives as college professors. First is Professor Appleton's malaise accompanying his efforts to transmit the music of our value system to another generation. He expresses this when stating that his composition students are,

. . . bright, ambitious, and totally uninterested in serious music composed after 1950. They want to compose music with melody, with tonal harmony. . .. They want to speak to and entertain their audiences in the same way that Mozart did and Bruce Springsteen does.

Appleton goes on to state his grave concern that the compositional techniques he was taught to value no longer contain meaning to his students, While there are many possible reasons why his American students might react this way, my contention is that the Jeffersonian and Whitmanesque democratic ideals of our country have continued to evolve in this century, while our techniques for analyzing and evaluating music have not, nor have they ever addressed this perspective. The German model was fully formed, a part of academia a century ago, and not based on those ideals. As our students confront the greater moral, political, and existential ambiguities of modern society, the simplistically clear guidelines of the German model only appear irrelevant and confound their efforts to understand the aesthetic ends of twentieth-century music. Most professors recognize this but often unconsciously retreat to comments such as "You can't study that kind of music in a university," and "We study serious music here, not that stuff." The tragedy is "that stuff" doesn't always mean rock, jazz, "new age," or the American music industry, but electronic music, computer-controlled keyboard technologies, minimalism, and music of third-world cultures.

Also, a curriculum based on this model does little service to future teachers who must confront society directly at its most elemental level. Returning to their communities, these teachers lack the ability to relate their training to any of the literature that their students know or want to learn about, or their communities expect to hear. They feel guilty because the level of literature never approaches what they studied in college. They are disillusioned because the values they were taught have no reinforcement in the society at large and they are at odds with their students who are rewarded by emotional satisfaction and pleasure in a music-making experience that affirms their life and culture which teachers have been taught to see as an immature and anti-intellectual response to musical stimuli.

It is easy to see weaknesses in the paradigm of American musical education. It is another matter to offer a clear alternative. One of the pleasures of writing an article like this is the opportunity to play the role of prophet without the pressure of playing Messiah. In practice, the German model is highly philosophic and ties in with the best of the Liberal Arts tradition. (After all, the American Musicological Society is the only musical organization holding membership in the American Academy of Learned Societies.)

No one wants to see our connections to Athens or Florence weakened, but one of the more virulent strains of twentieth-century thought has been for modern man to define himself in the egalitarian, democratic ideal in which the spirit and aspirations of the common man have replaced gods, kings, and the aristocracy. That thought is not expressed in our curricula while it is very present in literature and drama. Perhaps they hold a potential model for us.

As an international country trying to accommodate multiple cultural influences, there is no foreseeable paradigm that can contain the variety of contemporary American musical culture. And since universities are inherently conservative, it is easier to keep what we have than to go in search of an undefined alternative. But that alternative is exactly what is needed. We must define a new aesthetic standard capable of incorporating the larger world of music than the one defined in the German model. It must infuse our theory, literature, applied performance, and methods courses with a new sense of what it means to be a musician and teacher in American society in the twenty-first century. As an aside, were most of us alive in Mozart's day, we very likely would never have heard of him or his work. We would have been trained to perform, compose, teach, and conduct works written and/or revered by ourselves and our generation, free of historical authority or guilt over not composing like the French, the Italians, or the Germans. Should we perhaps prepare students to live such a life today and leave the decisions of greatness to the next generation of historians?

This is a rather large, and perhaps absurd, claim—namely that as a result of consciously adopting the "German Model" in the late nineteenth century, music schools have unconsciously assumed the aesthetic standards and analytical frames of reference within that model. This process has shaped our curricular planning in such a way that we selective\y omit references to works that lie outside the narrowly defined German model of scholarship and aesthetic quality. Regardless of their origin or contemporary recognition, many composers and ethnic/nationalistic schools of composition have not been a part of music study because their system of musical expression accepted certain constraints as given (diatonic/chromatic tonality as one example) and proceeded to explore other avenues of aesthetic expression (i.e. greater development of timbre, rhythm, modal scales, improvisation, etc.) Since the German model in the twentieth century defined excellence in other terms, these composers and schools have been unconsciously ignored because they lie outside the accepted system of critical review. If composers rehash the twelve tones in different tonal combinations, then regardless of their stated intent, ingenuity of expression, or aesthetic motivation, they are not a part of the true projectory of history, as defined by the Second Viennese School and its successorsin America and Europe. Therefore, according to this school of thought, all efforts to express our humanity in sound by non-Germanically defined means remain peripheral to music history rather than central to it. Why? Because we all teach what we were taught, value what we were taught to value, and perceive the world as we were taught to perceive it. We are all the products of our academic musical culture and here in America that has been defined by the German perspective.

Since the 1930s there have been notable efforts to break that hold in this country, particularly in the Copland, Harris, Sessions, Hanson schools of composition, in open rejection by composers like George Rochberg, and in the sheer talent and audacity of many excellent popular music composers. But they all suffer the indignity of being "Kleine Meisteren" in a development often denigrated as nationalistic and incidental to history's larger course. As we enter the twenty-first century, it seems almost comical that we base our education training in "the beautiful in music" on a model of values, learning, and scholarship borrowed from the Enlightenment. We ally our curricula to an eighteenth-century confidence in mankind's ability to determine absolute techniques of analysis that reveal the true line of historical development. This concept of knowledge was vilified by a host of critics between the World Wars. Today, no one assumes the totality of human endeavor in any discipline can be subsumed under or contained within a single perspective. The twentieth-century musical world has grown too great for such an arrogance, too detailed for such grandiose schemes. We are teaching Newtonian physics in a world of quantum mechanics and relativity theory. We are arguing over the innovative variations of twelve tones and derivative techniques while the world outside our classroom dances to Thoreau's different drummer.

Finally, if this argument has any credence, one can see curricula based on jazz, or even works by Prokofiev, George Crumb, Morton Subotnik, or Paul Simon would be a fearful alternative. Historical discussion could turn away from chronicles of begetting to the aesthetic decisions that brought about certain "idiosyncratic tendencies." History would be alive and theory confounded because no rules of conduct would be in place. Each teacher along with his or her class of students would be on the same par as they discuss the merits of a given work, While the teacher could demonstrate new insights and possibilities for the analysis and interpretation of a work, the final arbiter would not be the objective standards imposed by an abstract model borrowed from another time and culture, but the concerted effort of all to determine a model for explaining the character and complexity of the contemporary American musical scene and, I dare say, the "relevance" of any work in light of that model.

In closing let me say that this has been written in kindest jest. My comments are in the extreme for the sake of illustrating my points. The system of higher education in America is still a bastion of leadership, responsive, evolving, and capable of educating the finest musicians and teachers in the world. Finally, I can think of no greater service the Symposium could offer than to serve as the forum for a series of critical responses to this and to the article by Professor Appleton as well as discussions for and against a given model for music study in American colleges and universities.


1Appleton, Jon, "The College Music Curriculum is in Pressing Need of Reform." Chronicle for Higher Education (19 April 1989), B2.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

Roger Rideout

Roger R. Rideout is emeritus professor of music from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a former professor of music education at the University of Oklahoma. He teaches as an adjunct at the University of Oklahoma School of Music and in the university’s College of Liberal Studies.

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