To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

There are many to whom we owe our thanks for the rich musical heritage we now enjoy. John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), considered the first academic professor of music in the U.S., established the program at Harvard around 1875. Born in Portland, Maine, his early musical studies followed the apprenticeship model under the tutelage of Hermann Kotzchmar, a German immigrant who worked for Paine’s father. He later continued his studies in Germany (the norm for the time) and concentrated on organ, counterpoint, composition, and voice. When he returned to the U.S., he assumed a post as organist and choirmaster at Boston’s West Church and soon after at the Appleton Chapel of Harvard University. He also taught several Harvard students, although on an “unofficial” basis and for no pay. When the university president decided that music should have a more important place on the campus (over and above the social activities of glee club and choir), Paine was given an honorary A.M. degree so that he could be appointed to the faculty. The curriculum he established reflected his own experiences in Germany—studies strongly grounded in counterpoint and the European masters. It was a model quickly replicated in Yale‘s new department by Horatio Parker and at Columbia in 1896 by Edward MacDowell. The only inclusion of American music was by way of the performances a student might have heard of a teacher’s work.

These individuals had no easy task even after the programs were established. By and large, they taught all the offered courses and were the objects of constant criticism by colleagues and administrators who thought the music program had little substance and was very expensive. Musicians needed special practice rooms, recital halls, and way too much equipment! Fortunately, they persevered and the programs continued. Music, an important showpiece in the university, was especially attractive in the social circles of potential donors.

The conservatory was an equally fertile environment for the growth of music education in the U.S. Although active in Europe since the Middle Ages, conservatories did not develop in America until the mid 1800s with the earliest programs at Peabody (1857), Oberlin (1865), and Cincinnati (1867). The New England Conservatory (1867) was particularly successful in training those who would teach amateur musicians.

The curriculum in conservatories varied depending on the geographical location, with large cities having the greatest access to performance resources. In some instances the institution “did little more than match teachers with students, and it was not uncommon for young musicians—singers in particular—to achieve prominence with little formal training of any kind” (Grove, “Conservatories, III: 1790-1945”). Conservatories usually provided private instruction in voice and all instruments, as well as classes in harmony, counterpoint, aural skills, composition, and music history. However, an aspiring American composer might still find Europe a more viable opportunity for study.

It was not until 1945 (post World War II) that we witnessed another period of tremendous growth in U.S. educational institutions. The combination of clients and capital helped fuel a situation that was ripe for expansion. As a result, the study of composition flourished and a distinct brand of American music gained recognition.

At the heart of many of the long-standing and esteemed composition programs that developed over the next 25 years (1945-1970) were individuals who provided the sustenance that was necessary for their success. I began compiling a list of important composition programs in the U.S. and the people who made them so, with the intention of celebrating their outstanding efforts and achievements. I consulted with the ever-wise Samuel Adler—renowned composer, master teacher and a maverick in his own right. (Several years ago he and David Klingshirn founded the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.) As we talked, the list became longer and longer, and my greatest fear prevailed: “This is impossible, and I will certainly leave someone out!” The resulting roster of 41 schools and 89 teachers will have to wait for another day.

Today’s composition curriculum is very different than that of 100 years ago. The biggest change—the addition of music technology as a required course of study in most schools. Composers also study jazz, commercial music, recording techniques, and world music. But remaining at the heart of the experience is the private lesson—still a one-on-one student/teacher encounter. The format has changed very little, let alone the content. “It’s about the music!” Even the most seasoned pedagogues will attest to that (Shrude conversations with Adler, Babbitt, Bassett, and Morris, ca. 2001-02). Most schools will encourage or require study with several different teachers throughout one’s degree program. Seminars, master classes, visits of guest artists, and concerts of student works round out the experience.

(Please see NewMusicBox-Volume I, No. 8, December 1999, for a wonderful article on conservatories by Stefan Weisman. In it he examines the composition curriculum of eleven prominent music schools in the U.S.)

The summer offerings at Aspen and Tanglewood are important additions to the traditional academic agenda. These elite programs give young composers the chance to make professional contacts and an intensive experience that is quite different from the university. Thanks to the efforts of composers such as Gunther Schuller, Jacob Druckman, Bernard Rands, and John Harbison, the lessons, masterclasses, and performance opportunities are invaluable.

Interlochen Center for the Arts is one of the few places where our very youngest composers (ages 10 and up) can be nurtured. I had the great fortune to teach in the summer program for 8 years and was privileged to work with students of all ages. The Academy, a year-round residential high school for the arts, still provides one of the richest experiences for young talents. Private study in composition and performance, classes in music theory and literature, access to technology, and ample opportunities to hear one’s works serve to stimulate the imagination and to prepare the student for further study.

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

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.