Musical Performance as a Humanistic Study

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Performance as Humanistic Study

The discussion of this controversial subject was sparked by regulations found in the Constitution and By-Laws of Phi Beta Kappa:

  1. Grades earned in applied or professional work shall not be counted in computing the cumulative average for purposes of eligibility. Applied and professional work shall be understood to include all training intended to develop skill or vocational techniques in such fields as business administration, education, engineering, home economics, journalism, library science, military and air science, physical education, radio, secretarial science, and applied art, dramatic art, and music.
  2. Weight shall be given to the breadth of the course programs of all students under consideration. The department major should normally consist of not more than 30 credit hours beyond the introductory course. In no case should the student's required work within a single department, or in closely related departments exceed 42 credit hours.

In this article by Putnam Aldrich, along with the one by William Newman, both scholars and performers enter a plea for credit for "applied music." Also in this discussion, John Kirkpatrick provides a philosophic basis for performance in humanistic study, and Luise Vosgerchian describes the Basic Piano Program at Harvard where performance is required without credit toward the degree. All four articles appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 4. Letters arguing the matter pro or con will be welcomed for future issues of SYMPOSIUM.


According to a ruling made by Phi Beta Kappa applied music courses, being "intended to develop skills and vocational techniques," should not be accredited among the courses in the liberal education of the general student. Before examining the validity of this rule let us clarify the issue by defining its terms. Though the specific ingredients of a liberal education have varied considerably at different times and places, they seem to have one point in common: their primary goal is to develop the students' capacities for thinking and understanding; they are essentially contemplative, focused on understanding things rather than on doing things. If applied music courses are defined as training to develop skills and vocational techniques, then their emphasis is obviously on doing rather than on understanding, and the Phi Beta Kappa ruling is quite justified.

What I should like to question is the arbitrary definition of applied music courses as stated in the rule. Whether a course is "vocational" or not depends not upon its subject matter or even upon its teacher but upon the use to which the student intends to make of the instruction he receives. A student may take a course in mathematics as an apprenticeship to a career as public accountant or he may take it because he wants eventually to explore the higher reaches of mathematical philosophy. For a prospective history teacher all courses in history may be regarded as "vocational." An educational institution can scarcely be held responsible for the manner in which its instruction may be exploited in the future. The "vocational" aspect of the definition of applied music may therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.

That the competent performance of music involves the acquisition of physical skills that fall within the realm of "doing" rather than "understanding" cannot be denied. But is there not also a question of emphasis involved here? I should like to suggest a means by which courses in performance can be centered primarily upon the understanding of music.

First a brief but relevant digression. Manfred Bukofzer wrote an eloquent and illuminating essay called "The Place of Musicology in American Institutions of Higher Learning" which goes far beyond the implications of its title. The author establishes criteria not only for musicology, which he treats strictly as a graduate study, but for undergraduate courses in music to fulfill the objectives of a liberal education. The group of courses miscalled "theory," for instance, consisting of exercises in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc., are ordinarily taught according to an arbitrary set of rules in order to achieve proficiency in writing music and can rightly be classed as skills. But if, as Bukofzer explains, these courses are conceived primarily as methods of explaining the structure of music in various historical periods they can contribute to the student's understanding of musical styles while at the same time he acquires his writing skill.

I believe that Bukofzer's premises should be the point of departure for any serious discussion of music in the liberal arts college. But I also believe that without departing from these premises certain areas of applied music can and should be brought into the humanistic curriculum even though Bukofzer excludes them. Courses in group performance such as orchestra, chamber music and chorus he justifies on the grounds that they provide opportunities for the students to learn the literature of music that lies outside the repertory of professional concerts. "But," he concludes "this does not mean that there is a place there (in a liberal arts college) for individual instruction in voice and instruments."

The objections he cites are obvious: the huge amount of time spent on practice and external drill; the preoccupation with problems of muscular coordination and memorizing a small number of pieces; the limitation of these pieces to the so-called "current repertory," and the neglect of the broader aspects of musical literature. All of these objections certainly apply to a large percentage of the performance courses that are actually given today. But are they not, as in the case of "theory" courses, objections to the way they are taught rather than to the nature of their subject matter? And cannot a similar remedy be applied? I believe that instruction in performance can fulfill the objectives of a liberal education provided it is given in a humanistic spirit.

The understanding of a musical composition is both historical and technical. Changes of ideas and changes of attitudes toward music underlie changes of musical styles in different historical periods. Style analysis is the main road to understanding and is, or should be, the core of all humanistic study of music. The first prerequisite, as Bukofzer points out, is a thorough knowledge of the music itself. But what do we mean by "the music itself"? Without delving into the ontological problem of whether a specific musical composition can be said to exist at all, we can affirm that it does not exist in the form of a printed score or even of a manuscript in the composer's own hand. Music is an auditory, not a graphic phenomenon. Only a performance can call it into a temporary existence, and once the song has been sung it has vanished. For each performance (existence!) it must be re-created, and there is nothing to go on but written signs. The score is no more than a plan for a possible performance—and not a very specific plan at that. To get at the "music itself" for the purpose of style analysis the translation of musical notation into audible sounds is an indispensable preliminary. The techniques of representing sounds by signs vary in the course of time. Each composer writes for the interpreters of his own time and place. He expresses his meaning graphically in terms of the conventions of his time. The written symbols are essentially mnemonic; they serve chiefly as reminders to the performer of patterns of tones and rhythms with which he is already familiar. Some of the conventions are tacit; they are not represented in the notation because they are commonplaces that are taken for granted at the time.

The interpretation of rhythm, which in almost every period of history is fraught with tacit conventions, is a case in point. In our musical notation the durations of tones and rests are expressed in terms of arithmetical proportions. Yet the most significant features of some musical styles are to be found in the manner in which deviations from strict mathematical proportions were taken for granted. Frescobaldi, in 1627, informs us that his style of performance should not be subject to strict time, but "should vary the beat, which is taken sometimes slowly, sometimes fast and even held up in the air." We learn from Francois Couperin (1713) that in French music a series of eighth notes moving step by step should be played unevenly "although we write them as equal notes; our custom has enslaved us, and we continue to follow it. The Italians, on the other hand, write their music in the note values they mean." J.S. Bach's pupil, Kirnberger, lets us know that the rhythms of a Bach fugue should be articulated according to the dance patterns that inspired them.

The study of such stylistic features of music of past periods, known as Aufführungspraxis or performance practice, has been recognized as a branch of musicology for the past fifty years. It must be admitted, however, that the results of these studies have been more evident on paper than in sound. "The main obstacle to be overcome," writes Willi Apel in the Harvard Dictionary, "is the reluctance of modern interpreters, particularly orchestral conductors, to accept the historical facts, many of which are, to be sure, somewhat contrary to the aesthetic standards of 19th-century music." The reason why modern interpreters are reluctant is, of course, that they are unable to cope with these problems, even from the technical point of view. The techniques that are taught in conservatories and Schools of Music, in the acquisition of which students have gone through endlessly repeated exercises and spent a huge amount of time—are based exclusively on the performance practice of the late 19th century, which serves for the entire "current repertory." The string player who has spent years learning to obliterate all difference in sound between the down-bow and the up-bow will find it hard to adjust to the Baroque style, in which a sharp distinction between down- and up-bow strokes is the essential means of projecting metrical groupings, just as the keyboard-player who has been practicing even scales all his life will find it difficult to play them unevenly on appropriate, though unspecified occasions.

Record catalogues, radio programs and even concert programs during the past ten years have shown a definite trend toward expanding the standard repertory to include compositions from the Baroque and Renaissance periods. Some aspects of the styles of these periods (the least important, in my opinion) have been recaptured through the use of old instruments such as harpsichords, viols, recorders and the Baroque organ. The performance style, however, except in a very small minority of cases, has remained the standard conservatory style in which pieces of all periods are performed alike, with the same perpetual vibrato, the same bowing and tonguing techniques, the same inappropriate crescendi and diminuendi and the same absence of ornamentation. And these distorted versions are the only available examples for teachers of the history and literature of music to use to demonstrate the changes in musical styles. This in itself is a violation of the standards of the liberal education. Something must be done. The only solution I can envisage is to teach our own students performance styles within the context of a liberal arts education.

A few institutions, of which my own is one, have introduced courses in the performance practices of early music. At Stanford the courses parallel those of the history series: Middle Ages, Renaissance, Early Baroque, Late Baroque and Classic. Needless to say there are problems. It is obviously essential that the teachers themselves be performers who have mastered the various styles and techniques. At present both individual and class instruction is given in stringed instruments (viols and violins), woodwinds (recorders, krummhorns, flutes and oboes), keyboard instruments (harpsichord, clavichord and organ) and voice. The number of course units is adjusted to the normal requirements for the B.A. and M.A. with a major in music. Practice hours are long, but probably no more time consuming than the laboratory work required for the natural sciences. It is, of course, impossible to acquire professional standards of proficiency within the four- or five-year span of the liberal arts education. Students who have completed these courses, however, are eligible to enter the Doctor of Musical Arts program with a concentration in performance practice.

One more point remains to be considered. The unwritten conventions in the interpretation of written notes did not cease to change at the time of Bach, or at the time of Mozart, or even at the time of Schonberg. One wonders how Chopin would feel could he hear our modern Knights of the Keyboard thundering through his Scherzi and Ballades at a speed and volume that were unheard of in the 1840's. I believe we are badly in need of an Aufführungspraxis romantischer Musik, if only we could find anyone qualified to teach it. Furthermore, how many conservatory students can read a score by Boulez, or follow Elliot Carter's "metrical modulations," or actually put into practice Henri Pousseur's "qualitative aperiodicity" (which, incidentally, bears a strange resemblance to Frescobaldi's type of rubato)? I, for one, look forward to the time when all performance courses will consist chiefly in instruction in performance practice. In this way they will contribute to a more valid study of stylistic analysis that is based on manifestations of the "music itself" rather than on written scores that are only prescriptions for music. At the same time they will fulfill not only the requirements but the needs of the liberal arts education.

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Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

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