To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

It is difficult to extricate the teaching of composition from the early history of music.

By admission this treatment will not even claim to address music outside of the western tradition, and for this I apologize. The two best sources that synthesize what is a large and unwieldy amount of information are the reliable Grout/Palisca, A History of Western Music (6th edition) and the recently updated, expanded, and revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edition). From these sources anyone can follow numerous threads in a rich and detailed tapestry.

By today’s definition, when one composes, one engages in a highly complicated activity that implies a command of language and materials so that a creative thought can be transmitted and replicated. This, however, was not always the case.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, culture was the bedrock of daily life and music an integral part. In his Grove article on “Music Education, classical,” Warren Anderson finds the earliest evidence of music instruction cited in the Homeric poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the former, Achilles is playing the lyre and singing, and these abilities were probably acquired under the tutelage of the exiled Phoenix, a friend of his father.

Unfortunately, very few “music manuscripts” have survived from ancient times. One of the earliest artifacts is a fragment on papyrus (200 B.C.E.) that was possibly by Euripides. Most of our information about this period is gathered from literature, the visual arts, histories, philosophies, and theoretical writings. Pythagoras (ca. 500 B.C.E.), who is considered “the founder” of Greek music theory, has rightfully intrigued composers with his system wedded to numbers and the “key to order” in the cosmos. Writings by Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, and Ptolemy speak of music as intimately linked to poetry and possessing qualities that affect behavior. A well-educated person would have a balance of gymnastics (body) and music (mind), hence the soul.

With the rise of formalized religion, the needs of ritual demanded a better system of conveying musical ideas for repetition. The involvement of multiple performers simultaneously playing distinct musical lines called for coordination and precision. Because it was impossible to rely on aural tradition alone, notation became a way to codify and organize. Musicians had to be less dependent on recollection and more knowledgeable of exact rules and idioms. The increasing complexity of the music and notation systems saw the creation of “theories” to govern procedure and thereby an abundance of treatises. One of the earliest and most widely used was De institutione musica by Boethius (ca. 480-524/26), often referred to as “the first music textbook.”

In his article on “Composition” in Grove, Stephen Blum summarizes the stages that may have brought about the creation and notation of a polyphonic work: the composer devises a plan, communicates it to the performers, hears it, revises it, and finally makes a set of instructions. Blum mentions the frustration of Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) as he contended with performers who continually made “changes” in his finished product. It is about this time that the dilemma of spontaneity vs. correctness really begins.

Many types of music education existed in the choir schools and the emerging universities of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but it is difficult to identify an exact course of studies that would have been the norm for a composer. Blum points out that the term “composer” appeared in the late 15th century in conjunction with the rise of polyphony. Teaching composition was likely a system of apprenticeship. In some ways, anyone who performed could be considered a composer, since the act of creating “new” works was so indelibly linked to performing them. Another critical piece of the puzzle falls into place at this time (ca. 1500)—printing and publishing—which allowed for the distribution of works on a grander scale.

Perhaps some of the most groundbreaking scholarship on the art of composition before 1600 is Jessie Ann OwensComposers at Work. The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Owens, a professor of music at Brandeis University, supports the theory that composers of this time did not use scores, but more than likely constructed music in parts, not unlike the scenario described above. For our purposes, more important is her chapter on teaching composition, one of the only lengthy and detailed treatments on the topic of late. The many examples she cites from treatises, correspondence, and contracts shed light on the obscure topic and support the belief that the teaching of composition was primarily in the choir schools or through private instruction. Owens opens the chapter with a lengthy quotation by German theorist and composer Adrianus Petit Coclico (1499/1500-ca.1562), who claimed to be a pupil of Josquin (ca.1450s-1521). Her response to the described teaching scenario is beautifully and succinctly summarized: “first singing, then counterpoint, and finally composition” (Owens, 12).

Time and space will not permit even a cursory look at the next 250 years. The rapid growth of conservatories and universities in Europe gave rise to an educational legacy that set the standard for the future. The teaching of composition, however, largely followed the apprenticeship model. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven—some of our most venerated masters—received their earliest training from family members. They were brilliant performers, who copied and arranged the works of their predecessors and contemporaries, and this too was an important part of their development as composers.

From To What Degree: A HyperHistory of Teaching Musical Composition
By Marilyn Shrude
© 2002 NewMusicBox

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.