Who owns music history?

By Miranda Wilson

In a recent conversation with a composer friend, we started talking about why certain topics are central to the teaching of music theory. Why, for example, does the “textbook” method place so much emphasis on four-part harmony and species counterpoint when a lot of other important theoretical topics aren’t covered as thoroughly in core undergraduate classes?

Or, assuming that this Bach- and Palestrina-centric method is OK, why don’t we integrate the topics of harmony and counterpoint more, i.e. take the procedure of the individual line as the starting point for teaching voice-leading, rather than a list of the rules, examples of the rules, and all the possible exceptions to the rules? (Which seems to be the way most textbooks set forth the concepts.)

Why don’t we start the discussion by listing the practical applications of voice-leading rules, such as knowing what voice of the harmony you’re playing in your string quartet or brass quintet or a cappella vocal ensemble so that you can adjust intonation?

Further to that thought, why did no theory teacher of mine, at any of the four universities I attended, even mention the concept of just vs. Pythagorean vs. equal-tempered intonation to me?

Why couldn’t we talk more about the harmonic series, and how the properties of sound itself have determined so many of our harmonic principles, and not just in Western music, either?

I’m not a theorist, and I don’t know the entire theory pedagogy literature, so maybe some professors are already teaching this stuff. I hope so. I try to address the issues myself in the sophomore aural skills sequence that I co-teach, in the hopes that I might guide students towards a genuinely practical approach for the practice room as well as the exam room.

All this talk of theory got me thinking about the concept of the music history textbook too, and how deeply problematic the priorities of so many of them are, too, even when some of them have made earnest and much-appreciated attempts to expand the literature so that composers who aren’t necessarily dead white men can have a place at the table.

Here’s my problem, though: I think we are overstating the importance of a lot of episodes in music composition, and understating the importance of others. In a post last year, I found myself wondering if we in the academy had given too much importance, in both history and theory curricula, to twelve-tone music. I rather think that in a couple of hundred years, provided nuclear warfare hasn’t obliterated the planet altogether, music historians might look back at dodecaphony as an interesting but ultimately finite and limited episode in the history of composition. And I say this as someone who really enjoys playing and listening to the compositions of the Second Viennese School. I find a lot of post-Webern serial music to be problematic, as is the academy’s focus on it in preference to other things that were happening at the same time in music. Such as the things that, whether we like it or not, still sell recordings and get audience backsides on seats.

I’m not saying the audience opinions should be the guiding force in all things here (consider all the times great composers of the past got booed — Stravinsky comes to mind, and I 100% agree with the strong emphasis that he gets in music history curricula). But I’ve felt ambivalent about other trends for several years now. This essay on the acoustic impossibility of Schoenberg’s most famous invention has haunted me for a long time. It troubles me because I agree with it, and that’s led me to a lot of second-guessing of the things I’ve always assumed I should be teaching and saying and thinking.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why we spend so much class time on certain composers and so little on others. I remembered a class in twentieth-century music from my undergraduate days (when, ahem, it still was the twentieth century, though the century was on its last legs) in which we spent weeks and weeks analysing Le Marteau sans maître and a few other pieces I couldn’t really bring myself to love, but the names of some other composers who were active around the same era, such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich (whose music I did and do love) weren’t even mentioned.


I was too shy to ask the teacher about this in case it turned out that I was vulgar or ignorant for preferring the compositions of the Soviet-era Russians to the mostly Central European post-Webernists that he favoured. I regret this now, because it might have led to an interesting conversation.

This occurred to me yesterday when I turned the radio on to Northwest Public Radio in the car. They were playing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), one of my favourite pieces. It’s tremendous fun to play, always a hit with the audience, a brilliantly written and brilliantly effective piece of music. And it occurred to me that you almost never see any substantive discussion of Vaughan Williams’ music in a textbook.


When I lived in Britain, a few musician friends told me they’d actually been taught at university that their heritage of British romantics and post- and neo-romantics — Parry, Elgar, Holst, Delius, Vaughan Williams, and so on — were “cowpat.” Real British music, they were told, was the New Complexity school. This lofty trashing in the academy seemed wholly unrelated to the fact that putting on The Planets or the Enigma Variations is a sure-fire way to fill up a concert hall. In fact, it seemed for a while that we were all taught to despise anything that might feature in the Last Night of the Proms.

Remembering this reminds me also of some of my own teachers, who went to university in the 1960s, who mentioned to me over the years that their undergraduate classes were taught by modernists who claimed that late romantic composers, Brahms and Franck and Sibelius and Elgar and so on, weren’t any good. It occurs to me now that those zealous anti-romantics had probably been oppressed themselves back in the 1920s by an older generation of critics who couldn’t understand what they were trying to do with post-diatonicism. Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t want to react against the stranglehold of an older, dominating tradition? But isn’t dismissing Brahms a mistake? You can say a lot of things about Brahms, but “not any good” shouldn’t be one of them.

I’m not suggesting that we go the other way and get rid of serialist and other non-diatonic music from the concert hall, the college lecture hall, or the history books. I just wonder whether we might do better at acknowledging that a lot of things were going on in music in the 1910s (and 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s…etc), and it’s not just the ones happening in central European post-diatonicism that are important in the winding, multi-faceted, fragmented, crazy world of music history.

And with that, I have a sudden and unrepentant urge to relearn Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong for my next recital programme.


One thought on “Who owns music history?

  1. Vaughan Williams gets far too little credit — not for writing music of great beauty and expressive power, which everyone acknowledges (even the “cowpat” crowd), but for being innovative. The late symphonies are all unique, groundbreaking works, despite the “conservative” tonal language. I’ll stack 6, 8, and 9 up against any 20th-century symphony for creativity and overall impact (I don’t care for Shostakovich, by the way — but that’s mostly for his hideous mistreatment of the trombone section). And while we’re at it, 5 for being arguably the most unremittingly beautiful orchestral work in the repertoire — which should still count for something, even though it doesn’t!


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