Is There a Future for the Traditions of Music and Music Teaching in Our Colleges and Universities?

1996 Robert M. Trotter Lecture

"Is there a future for music and music making at universities?" The answer clearly is "Yes. There is a future, even if it is a dismal one." In addressing what's happening to music teaching, I want to consider three areas: classroom music teaching and subject matter, scholarship (writing about music), and performance.

The CMS 1990-92 report was about things we think are the problem: diversity, gender, cross-cultural matters. I would add to gender the questions of sexual orientation and the exclusion of minorities. I think that this is not the problem in music, and I would urge all of us to shutter our windows to the invasion of not-very-helpful fashions of colleagues in other parts of the university and other schools. Our problems are different, so let's look at the music-teaching situation in a different way.

People think some things have changed from what they used to be. The aging faculty have nostalgia for the "good old days," and young people think the oldsters have a hegemonic, totalitarian grip on curriculum and value, and there's a sort of values game playing, none of which has to do with music of any kind. It's all about politics, turf, and preening in front of a mythical audience about who is morally superior. The American university has become subject to a dislike of dissent and to an imitation of Puritan politics that exist outside of the university. People are more concerned about what you are than with music of any kind.

First, consider the role of popular culture. There always was something called "popular culture," but the mode of its access and distribution is radically different now than it was in prior historical eras. That influences various things, one of which is listening habits. The student's ear is very important because in popular culture the questions of diversity and gender are wiped out. What is important about popular culture is its immense uniformity and its cross-line distribution: white folk, black folk, gay and lesbian persons consume in a kind of crisscross fashion a lot of what's coming out, without any kind of doctrinal coherence. It is an eclectic mix of ethnic, political, sexual, regional attributes, but the uniformity in distribution is very important. The influence of popular culture on literacy in general is significant in terms of how we teach music. The way music is taught has always been contingent on the way ordinary literacy has been attained, used, and distributed. Many psychologists believe musical literacy and cognitive functions are related. I believe there is a relationship between the way we ought to teach music and the way ordinary literacy is taught and attained.

Also important is the way music is consumed, produced, and adapted by young people. It's not only mechanical reproduction in some kind of Adorno-Benjamin sense, but a matter of looking at modern technology as it really is -- considering how people use their ears' access to sound and music. This is a uniform reality no matter who our students are insofar as they grow up in the United States.

Second, there is the matter of acoustic environment, which affects issues crucial to music, such as memory, recognition, and how people process information. The acoustic environment in which people grow up concerns general environmental sensibilities of the relationship of space and time. Few of us worry about the attachment of meaning to musical phenomena, and don't take into account how the clock of daily life operates. What, historically, was "tempo" and "speed" in the early 19th century? It is impossible to look at a music score and derive from conventional Western notation the meaning of adagio or allegro con spirito. What was allegro con spirito to a society that never moved more rapidly on a uniform basis than 40 miles an hour? It's hard to know, but it's relevant. The important thing about Beethoven's metronome is how it was used in that era. Deaf people hear sound internally in relationship to memory of prior-to-deafness conceptions of time, duration, and acoustic sound. In the early 19th century there was no mechanical device that ticked all the way through a piece of music as a conservatory student would use one now. It's not that the metronome couldn't do it then, but that no one viewed any mechanical device -- even clocks -- with quite the same expectation of regularity. The concept of time, memory, and the acoustic environment are important.

If someone plays a recording of Mahler's First Symphony day in and day out, that person has an entirely different conception of musical memory than a previous generation had, for the previous generation's access to such events was not the same. A concert audience hearing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is far more familiar with that symphony than any previous audience in history. If you went to every professional concert in Vienna from 1880 to 1900, it would have taken you over a decade to hear all of the Beethoven symphonies once. In an environment like that, the sense of relationship to the sound of music was different, and the acoustic environment was different in terms of intensity. Then, no civilian ever heard sounds comparable with a jet plane on a runway, or an electric eggbeater, or the hum of a refrigerator. We should pay attention to such things because they concern how people respond to sound. The same is true of duration of sound and sight. People's concept of time, periodicity, and expectation -- words used in talking about musical form -- have meanings related to daily experience outside of music.

Charles Ives's memory of hearing bands at an outdoor event and his relationship of that memory to a complex musical form is similar to the way a 19th-century novelist might take real events spanning 18 years and through artistry recreate the sensibility in the reader in false time in real time. Thus, you have comparable parallel narratives that don't have the same clocks. If we do that in the late 20th century in teaching about music, which actually creates its own clock, we have the matter of the perception of duration and the use of absolute time. Changes in our society are crucial to the expectation of music.

Consider the relation of sound and sight. Motion pictures with sound didn't exist before the 1920s, When we look at a 19th-century melodrama by Fibich, we have a completely different conception of the relation of verbal narration or action than in a Wagner opera. The relationship of sound and sight is crucial. In the 19th century the success of a lot of repertoire had to do with the societal function of the concert hall, in which people used listening to music in organized time for structured "visual hearing." People listen to instrumental music and imagine visual narratives of various kinds, some organized by the music itself and some by a work that has nothing to do with telling a story. The acoustical environment is a significant factor in how we teach music.

The third issue is the structure of time itself, particularly, its relationship to public and private functioning -- the social context of the way we make music in relation to the way we structure the day -- the relationship of work and leisure -- when music is heard, in what context, and with whom. The social context of the use of music has changed dramatically. For some undergraduates this is part of the story -- what they associate with music in their daily activity in work and play, and how people form into groups. Schubert and learned to play in instrumental ensembles as part of local music making when another player was needed. Today, is music heard intergenerationally, as it might have been in a playing circumstance in a village in central Europe in Schubert's or Dvorák's time? Or is it a peer -- or age -- segregated event? In what area -- public or private? Is it a family affair, or has the family structure changed dramatically? The whole notion of domestic living, of circumstances by social class, and of where music actually functions, is important.

We must consider the late-19th-century forums for listening to music. Students somehow overlook the fact that a lot of music in Vienna, the great center of Eurocentric male-dominated art, took place in eating and drinking establishments. That is a clue about the various forms of music making and the relationship of one form to another. The public and private uses of music, its social organization, and the space in which it is performed, are crucial to the relationship of the "popular" high/low culture. These important matters are very different in our time, even from the 1950s. Things were different even in technology that we consider to be relatively recent. Auditoria relate to the question of time because people's willingness to sit in fixed seats is of changed significance. In the old Soviet Union, people came to concerts to hear standard repertoire played moderately well by an ordinary Soviet pianist and an ordinary orchestra, and people cried. Why? Because sitting without fear in public in a social situation had a significance that is now lost.

The fourth issue is the life cycle. Music and music teaching have an important relationship to the life cycle. When you hear that Schubert died at 31, you have to understand several things about the life cycle. Then, it was not unusual to die at age 31. So, what were his life expectations? The historical basis for what has been written about Schubert to elevate the metaphysical angst of his music is interesting, but what Schubert thought is a different matter. Whether Schubert's angst was specific to him, and was not a daily experience of everybody living there, concerns what I call the three D's: death, disease, and dirt. The relationship of music to death, disease, and dirt is significant.

When can young people learn music best? That has to do with fundamental changes in development and nutrition, with leisure and old age, with the life cycle totally. It is important to know that Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn went through puberty 3 or 4 years later than someone born 10 years ago. When we teach a young person music, what is the utility of that over the trajectory of life that has an entirely different pattern than the one we associate with and the relationship of the basic issues of life -- hygiene, disease, death? These are major questions. The relationship between music and the conditions of daily life, certainly by social class, is important. So is the political context, which includes the economics of music making and patronage -- the relationship to the industry and economics of music making, the institutions, the form of patronage, and the political significance that it is or is not given. It is important to recognize what the political function of music is in U.S. culture. Is music really a democratic art form? Does it fit in, or is it an uncomfortable importation of aristocratic European patronage? To what extent is the question of music crucial to political leadership -- a part of the political communication between a government and its people? These things differ in different countries and affect the musics that are used. Certainly, the economics, including who supports it and why, are important. When we teach music in our classrooms, every student knows that music is not a high priority in the political campaign for president. Even if the National Endowment worked, it is not a subject that anyone is going into the barricades about. In contrast, in Austria it is important who heads the Augsburg Festival, and a big political issue who is director of the theater in Vienna. The same is true of the question of church and state, of religion, and of economy -- these things affect the teaching of music in school. If we think about how to teach music by looking at these issues, and set aside all the politically correct lingo, we come to some very interesting things.

First, we would consider students generationally, not by such characteristics as height, weight, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, etc. We would conclude that what they need to do most is to learn how to actively make music. We might come up with something like Hindemith Gebrauchsmusik, or have them use various technologies and produce pieces of found music from ambient sound. We might do things that train the ear and use improvising as the baseline of beginning musical activity. No notation. No Schenker graphs. Schenker was dealing with a public whose habits of listening were different; he was showing what he called "the Philistine public" that they didn't really hear what was happening. The Adorno-Schenker generation was different and is irrelevant except for those interested in historical analysis. Training the ear is training in making music. Build theory up from popular practice, not from Palestrina. Start with the periodicity character of the most important pop song and work from the ground up -- use rhythmic analysis from jazz or various mixed forms of the popular hybrids that now come out of commerce. Start with what's in students' ears and get them to grow beyond it. Use hearing as a bridge to forms of literacy. The relationship of what's happening in their minds and the staff may lead to different kinds of notation. Everything can't be put into a diatonic or chromatic framework. The sound of a hunting horn could be notated à la Haydn, but you can't accurately notate a car horn, and students have heard a lot of car horns.

The teaching of history is the practical bridge to what we call "theory" -- the critical analysis of sound and structure, and of what is possible, but allow the students to understand what they are doing and its reflection in notation. Technology can be helpful in this. We still have some kind of ideology of who is and who is not musical. If you have "perfect pitch," you're musical. The idea that the most musical person in the class is the one who can do perfect dictation is not true. The conception of who is and who is not gifted has to do with some kind of system that is now disjunctive.

Teaching music history will put to death the music appreciation course of yesteryear for a variety of reasons of professional aggrandizement. There was a previous generation, especially in colleges in the northeast, where persons like G. Wallace Woodworth taught this kind of course. He played scratchy recordings of symphonies, and people gave money to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But some musicologists thought it wasn't historical, and some composers thought that if you can whistle the tune you don't know what the music is about -- it is about the tonal background, not the tune. That attitude destroyed an attachment to what used to be our ideal student. Music appreciation courses, if they exist at all now, have low enrollments in comparison with art appreciation or art history courses.

There is a collapse of music education in general around the country before college; therefore, we don't have the sort of people already on the track except in conservatories. We produce more than enough professional or pre-professional musicians. The issue is not producing more performers or more music professors. It has to do with getting a public invested in making, hearing, and dealing with music as part of their lives, because we think music is important and not decoration in our society. One thing that's wonderful about the teaching of music history now is the assumption of lack of familiarity. This is a tremendous virtue. There is nothing so satisfying as having dyed-in-the-wool pop-music fans encounter for the first time a Bruckner symphony or a piece of Renaissance music.

It is important to realize that the surprise element is much more creative as an opportunity than the sort of assumption of canonic respect that preceded it. It means that we have to think about teaching music history in a different way -- teaching repertoire and not chronology. We must relate music history to history in general. The relationship of music to life historically has to be made, whether it's art history or political or social history. For example, there is a tremendous relationship between the work of Felix Mendelssohn and the existence and growth of Neo-Classicism in art and architecture. We teach about Mendelssohn working for the Bach revival, but a year before that he wrote music for a celebration of Albrecht Dürer in which the entire room was decorated by every leading Neo-Classic painter and sculptor of his time. What influence did that have? What is important about Mendelssohn"s relationship with Goethe is what Goethe thought in the 1820s and what ideas Mendelssohn incorporated in his mind about what he was doing as a composer -- that's intellectual history. What if the relationship of Poulenc and Les Six to surrealism might be what the relationship of Brahms was to the whole question of the German-Roman tradition in painting? What was the relationship of American history and American life all about to Dvorák? When we get out of the European canon and get into other ideas of music making, these questions are strong. If we don't teach music history as an integrated part of a way of discovering something about history in general, this generation isn't going to be interested in it, nor should they be. It's not a formalist exercise in discrete subject matter. If you really are interested in using history for them to hear and understand and love and appreciate a Beethoven symphony, this is the best way to do it.

The words written in a score at the time it was created have different valences of meaning historically. The words Mahler wrote in a score meant something in performance practice as realized sound and in meaning that was specific to the audience and the players he was working with. When we hear a Beethoven symphony and ask what this meant to audiences of the 182Os and what the relationship was between sound events and the ascription of meaning, we're talking about history and theory of the text being historically contingent. Theory is a contingent discipline. We have to write the history of music not only as the history of text but of music making. When we do that we use a lot of sources nobody's ever looked at.

Finally, consider performance. We have to rethink the ritual of performance, the relationships of musics to one another in performance, the repertoire we play and teach. You may even get a youngster to start with some improvisation on the violin, though the violin is not considered an improvisatory instrument. More of this should happen. Instead, I sit on juries and hear violinists play the same sequence I played: the Mozart concertos -- 3, then 4, then 5 -- then the Mendelssohn concerto. Why the same sequence?

Why not play something else from the vast repertoire that's available? The concertos mean something in relationship to history and life -- they're not some kind of ritual to be followed.

If you think about this in a new way and avoid all the terminology, cliches, and moralistic discourse of all parties on questions of gender, diversity, cross-culturalism -- and think simply in terms of music, some interesting things come up.

First, what we possess in the old sense is something very strange, unknown, counter-intuitive. It isn't part of daily life. Perhaps that's an advantage -- it's comprehensible. The canon may have a real place, real legitimacy, and be useful. The canon has been appropriated by everybody for every possible thing from jingles to oppression. Perhaps we'll discover that all the big divides don't really exist. What we call ethnomusicology will not be a separate discipline but something well integrated in our discussion of music as a whole, and we will talk about music in the old-fashioned language of universality -- the fact that it is not linguistic in the strictest sense makes it interchangeable and universal in a highly differentiated way. So we have differentiation, subjectivity plus objectivity, and we might find ourselves unified in the critique of commercial culture. The business of the university is a position of dissent and contrast and of introducing young people to things they wouldn't ordinarily stumble upon in daily life.

Therefore, we actually are fighting against the onrush of tide, fashion, and change. We are a conservative institution by definition, and so we should be, but maybe we'll find some virtue in the conservatism of the institution. We might find a common ground for the appreciation of this form of life, which, to everyone in music, is actually a matter of life and death.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 01/10/2013

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein is President of Bard College; Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities

Academic Program Affiliation(s): Bard Conservatory of Music, Bard Conservatory of Music: Music Theory and History, German Studies, Historical Studies, Music

B.A., University of Chicago; M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University, Department of History. Lecturer, Department of History, Boston University (1969); special assistant to the president, Board of Education, City of New York (1969–70); president, Franconia College (1970–75). Editor, The Musical Quarterly (1992– ). Music director and conductor, American Symphony Orchestra (1992– ) and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra/Israel Broadcasting Authority (2003– ). Conductor, Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (1981–92). Coartistic director, Bard Music Festival (1990– ). Guest conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bern Symphony, Bochum Symphony Orchestra (Germany), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Düsseldorf Symphony, Georg Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra (Bucharest), Hudson Valley Philharmonic, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Madrid Opera, NDR Symphony Orchestra (Hamburg), New York City Opera, ORF Orchestra (Vienna), Philharmonia Orchestra (London), Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, Romanian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Wroclaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Recordings with the American Symphony Orchestra (Arabesque, Vanguard Classics/Omega, Koch/Schwann, New World Records, Telarc); BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos, Telarc); Hanover Radio Symphony Orchestra (Koch International Classics); London Philharmonic Orchestra (IMP Masters, Telarc); London Symphony Orchestra (Telarc, Carlton Classics); National Philharmonic of Lithuania (Arabesque), NDR Radio Philharmonic (Koch International); NDR Symphony Orchestra (New World Records); Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston (CRI); Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Arabesque). Honors include membership in the American Philosophical Society, the Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts, Austrian Cross of Honor First Class, Centennial Medal from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Frederic E. Church Award for Arts and Sciences, National Arts Club Gold Medal. Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Board chair, Central European University; board member, Open Society Institute, Foundation for Jewish Culture. Member, National Advisory Committee for Yale–New Haven Teachers, National Council for Chamber Music America. Past chair, Association of Episcopal Colleges, Harper’s Magazine Foundation, New York Council for the Humanities. Articles in newspapers and journals including Christian Science Monitor, Chronicle of Higher Education, Gramophone, Harper’s, Musical Quarterly, New Republic, New York Times, 19th-Century Music, Partisan Review, Psychoanalytic Psychology, Salmagundi, Times Literary Supplement. Essays and chapters in a number of books about art, education, history, and music, including the Cambridge Companions to Music series and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Contributor to volumes in the Bard Music Festival series on Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Debussy, Dvoˇrák, Elgar, Haydn, Ives, Janáˇcek, Liszt, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Schumann, Shostakovich, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, published by Princeton University Press. Editor, The Compleat Brahms (W. W. Norton, 1999). Author, Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (Doubleday, 1997); Judentum und Modernität: Essays zur Rolle der Juden in der Deutschen und Österreichischen Kultur, 1848–1938 (Böhlau Verlag, 1991; Russian translation Belveder, 2003); The History of Listening: How Music Creates Meaning (forthcoming, Basic Books); Music and Modernism (forthcoming, Yale University Press). (1975– ) Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities.

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