Inaugural lecture given by Professor Piers Hellawell on Art as Trojan Horse: Composition is at the Gates
given on Thursday 6th May 2004 at 5 pm - The Harty Room, School of Music, Queen's University of Belfast.
I cannot remember a time before the arranging of sounds, to make something that wasn’t there before, seemed the best and only thing to do. Composition finds its victims, and it found me before I was five. However, being possessed of the mission is no qualification for writing durable music; and since education is our shared context here, this talk will be devoted not to composition practice but to the road leading to that practice. I shall be examining my own and others’ priorities in the education of the young composer; specifically, since our advanced musical training is now inseparable from issues at school level, I shall not apologise for giving much scrutiny to the classroom and its legacy. Queen’s is not a vacuum, of course, but part of a larger cultural mechanism, and that makes wider education our direct concern. I would like also to offer a brief overview of how the environment for acoustic composition has changed in my time here. I do recognize that there is a sore temptation, in inaugural addresses, for the speaker to fire off salvos at any and every target perceived to be obstructing the discipline. So – let’s get started!
My view of artistic education is simple: understanding empowers us to experience art. The powers of our time proclaim every kind of access save for the only one that counts, the proper theoretical, practical and historical grounding in how an artistic medium works. No amount of free entry to museums and concert-halls will bring art into people’s lives, if they have not been equipped to receive and process the art they find there: yet the New Labour 2000 Green Paper Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years devotes (1) its section 6, Widening Participation and Access, to the electorally recognizable policies of free museums and galleries, access to libraries, digital technology and lottery funding. Concern is not expressed for empowering the very children we seek to educate to appreciate these arts first, by ensuring proper education in them. I say it again; you cannot separate the physical access to the arts from the educational, unless the access you plan is limited to visits lasting an hour or two. There is only one access that lasts a lifetime. If education does not ‘widen participation’, we are all wasting our time – though I think the better phrase is ‘deepen participation’, something less interesting to politicians, for whom scale is everything. If one argues publicly for prioritizing training, as I did at a conference on that Green Paper held in the Tate Modern, voices cry out that one is ‘against participation’ in museums and so on; the charge of ‘discouraging access’ is the modern equivalent of crying ‘witchcraft’ – shoddily argued, but still a button-pusher. In fact, far from defending an establishment fortress, I shall argue here that it is as invaluable source of subversion that composition rests upon training: only carpenters can build a Trojan horse.
I must say that I have never had any doubts about the position, subversive or otherwise, of composition in universities. The current debate I hear on practice and research risks overlooking the time-honoured role of composition and performance in the academy. Some may even whisper that it is the research culture in music that is the newcomer. If I am defensive of the place of the creation of music in our curriculum, it is partly because the practice of composition, as once construed, was for so long a corner-stone of academic music-teaching.
A characteristically Delphic comment on composition in education comes from Sir Harrison Birtwistle. In an interview (2) he said
“Historically in the UK there has been too little composition teaching available. Arguably there is now too much.”
I’ve wondered what his argument may be that there is too much now, not because I am outraged but because I rather agree. If he has interviewed youngsters or their teachers about this, he may feel that the drive to get teenagers composing, largely in pre-existing style formulae, has led to a widespread confusion of intentions for the students and their embattled teachers. His comment certainly indicates that composition activity per se is by no means desirable. This can only now be unscrambled by swallowing a political heresy: getting everyone doing something without prior proper training, so they can be said to be doing so, is a poor and muddled use of resources. So that will not be confronted soon. I shall return later to the curricular pile-up that is schools composition, for here, above all, mere activity is espoused to the detriment of training for that activity.
Birtwistle’s claim that there has been too little composition teaching in the UK historically is undoubtedly true of the widest educational spectrum. If, though, we look at the hallowed portals of our university music schools, we find composition, of a sort, was once inseparable from time-honoured skills of the rounded academic. Such skills, of figured bass, tonal improvisation, counterpoint and advanced score-reading are now dwindling markedly.
Those of us who pick up the pieces in the wake of the decline of serious musical education at school level may well feel a pang when we contemplate the very different firmament of student composition a hundred (or fifty) years ago. Of course the loss of those skills in much of today’s curriculum is plain, and I will not pass up the chance to lament it today; but let us note too what may be behind this, lying some distance away from the main part of that wreckage. This is the trend towards self-expression, which today replaces the former emphasis on technical training in the young composer. Individual development has now far overtaken the latter as the entrenched priority. Since truly subversive creativity is only possible on a basis of sound technique - and I shall use Schoenberg’s example to assert this - then composition is in danger of losing its disruptive power, and stumbling around blindly – if we are not careful, more Pantomime Horse than Trojan Horse.
The composer-teacher 120 years ago, meanwhile, was a rounded professional rather than a distracted quasi-genius, and not obviously subversive; he (always he, I think) might conduct the choir, write choral works, play the organ and practice solidly classical orchestration, along with written skills rooted in Renaissance technique. Untroubled by Research Exercise considerations, he might nonetheless, sometimes, compose. The shift of priority from this to a more individualised model is neither a tragedy nor a relief, but is an interesting example of educational values being reflected in our different ages, and is a pendulum swing that must be recorded.
We find the ‘old’ values, as we must now call them, set out, as far back as 1830, in a popular English treatise of the early Romantic period by William Crotch (a man no more fortunate with his initials than with his surname). In his Elements of Musical Composition, we read in the Preface (3)
“A knowledge of the elements of musical composition is happily indispensable… to a musical education”.
We can see how remote that sentiment is from today’s thinking just by examining our local GCSE syllabus: though brimming full of composition tasks, it has (as I hinted) un-happily dispensed with those ‘happily indispensible’ basic elements of musicianship. The phrase about ‘happily indispensable to a musical education’ is, for any university teacher of music, bathed in an Arcadian sunlight: it reminds us how composition itself has changed, once a universally-owned science but latterly a recherché pursuit whose mysterious ‘elements’ even differ from one composer to another. What lies behind this evolution? The decline of skills is, as I said, part of a shift toward self-expression, in which something clearly happened to the primacy of pen-paper-and-keyboard skills; the idea of musical training as a practice-based discipline, at least in the U.K., began to fade, a loss that is inseparable from the wider decline of ownership suffered by composition itself. The united stream of art-music has fragmented into a delta of languages, and its core skills may be swept away. That process, at least, is reversible, where there is the will to reinstate training in literacy.
It is surprising how recently all this occurred. William Crotch would not, I think, have found much to alarm him in the Cambridge of the post-war years, where one of our Hamilton Harty Professors, Raymond Warren, was educated. He has told me that practical disciplines occupied a huge proportion of the syllabus, yet with a correspondingly small role given to the historical perspective offered by the exploration of earlier music. In a reflection of its then unchallenged position, musical technique was abstracted from historical generalities.
A training such as fugue, a compositional work based upon the legendary skill of combining versions of a theme in multiple voices, was central, but it was not cast as a means of studying those who developed it – Bach and his predecessors - nor as a route to discovering their individuality. It was an abstract pursuit, an ossified discipline that had been reduced to core principles, for it was held that skill in these abstractions was, still, at the heart of an educated musician. The mental exercises of these abstractions are as timeless as physical ones: we are still sensory creatures perceiving the relationship of tones, and some would say that this training is, thus, equally beneficial today. Its demands are ever-applicable, like those of language-learning – but of course, there we have it: the demands of language study itself are similarly falling into crisis.
So study at that time was of abstracted principles, then, rather than of great works. Even in my time at Oxford – when ‘history lectures’ were by now offered, if not much favoured by the students – it used to be said that one luminary could give a lecture on Strauss’s symphonic poems without mentioning a single one, and the story was told with a degree of acceptance (if not approval)! Professor Warren remembers a clear move from this culture of abstract training to work-based study, when the late Dr Thurston Dart, pioneer of early music study, began to locate teaching of canon in the Canzonets of Elizabethan composer Thomas Morley. Here was a new sense of priority given to historical practice over extrapolated technique. I can only think this was an improvement overall, and perhaps also for composition, but it did herald the twilight of the training regime that had held the floor for so long.
I am proud of the way our own curriculum seeks to maintain the core emphasis on some of these foundation skills, but the difference is that we are battling with this in the face of a dwindling of skills further down the ladder: unlike those of yesteryear, our new students are not in any numbers assured of fluency in tonal harmony, for example. In my memory of Queen’s such cases were a minority, to be given additional help, whereas we can make no assumptions today about any technical facility among the body of students, for the picture is alarmingly varied according to school and background. To start the academic year, I held a discussion with my first-year class on their own experience in this regard. Both conclusions pointed to a lack of framework: first was the lack of any uniform practice, for their experiences were astonishingly uneven; and second was the widespread sense of desertion among these eager youngsters. The discussion was united by the answer to my questioning whether the students felt they had a training in classical harmony: “No way!” they chorused. This position is replicated across the British HE sector and, in fact, emanates from wider idiocies that, alas, unite our kingdom.
The subtleties of this training were, till quite recently, surviving in teaching of Bach’s chorale harmonizations; and their banishment is a scandal of the current A level music syllabus. When Bach described music as ‘the recreation of the spirit’, he took for granted the technical literacy allowing that recreation. Yet, faced with the struggles of teachers to maintain harmonic teaching in a culture hostile to rigorous training, the powers-that-be have relegated that cornerstone to the margins. The tyre-marks of modular culture are on the lawn here, of course: harmony has been relegated to a ‘harmony option’, a now-secret garden walled off from all but the most determined and well-resourced teachers. But worse follows.
Perhaps panicking about having set off this further collapse in harmonic literacy, the custodians of the A Level syllabus have instated a requirement for tonal harmony – in the area specifically dedicated to personal expression, the so-called ‘free’ composition! Just where the students are meant to have acquired this traditional harmony training, without a harmony syllabus, is not clear; but ‘free’ composition now carries the instruction (4) that
“candidates are required to demonstrate, through their composition and commentary…an understanding of, and ability to use, functional harmony for expressive purposes.” It adds that “appropriateness and consistency of harmonic language” carry 20 marks – so let us discuss the nitty-gritty of what is ‘appropriate’.
It is as if an English syllabus were to drop its training in poetic metre and language, for example, only to require students then to cast their ‘free poetry composition’ in Alexandrines, hexameters or Shakespearian English. Since the language of stable tonal harmony was progressively diluted throughout the 19th Century, to insist upon classical harmony for free composition in 2004 effectively excludes all musical development since 1840. This is a muddled piece of Creationism, a Taliban syllabus without contextual sense, yet I believe it to be confusion, rather than intent, that lies behind it. Whatever the impetus, nonetheless, a brilliant teacher among our alumni was warned off exploring even Debussy with a school class, since that master finally dismantled the classical rhetoric of harmony during the 1890’s. This teacher has written to me, on a related prohibition, that
“I have been advised to encourage the students to pick ternary or rondo form templates and write in them; pieces without a marketable form get just above zero. I know that I'm being given sound advice because the teachers have the experience of what marks well and what doesn't. The pupils must write to formula. It is the opposite of what education should be doing for them. So the last thing the pupils should have access to is a composer - they need a civil servant.” (5)
Clearly teachers are unsure whether to encourage individual-expression in composition or to teach students to work the system. Writing pastiche of Haydn’s language is a useful historical study, mind, one which we still use, but it must never be conflated with ‘free composition’, for which it is one form of preparation. What is breathtaking is that the authorities appear not to understand the difference, that between creative imagination and historical pastiche.
A different confusion surrounds the presence in the syllabus of the serial or ’12-tone’ method developed by Schoenberg 90 years ago: perhaps his principles of composition with a series of tones are seen as ‘easy to mark’ because the use of a series allows ‘right and wrong’ notes, appearing to ask less in the way of subjective artistic judgement. Most students are not being taught about conceiving a unified work – though this was Schoenberg’s entire goal in evolving serial method – or being taught why this method ever came about in the world of music. Instead they must wield a mechanical tool for which they are given absolutely no aesthetic basis. Schoenberg was explicit about this danger (6) seventy years ago; perhaps he foresaw how vulnerable his creation would be to the sort of outcome now rife in GCSE, where children I speak to are being taught the how without the why.
“Beginners often think they should try it before having acquired the necessary technical equipment. This is quite wrong. The restrictions imposed… are so severe that they can only be overcome by an imagination that has survived a tremendous number of adventures.”
These conditions are hardly met by a GCSE student with no understanding of late Romantic music – a wretched misreading of the principles of serial composition. In any case, Schoenberg repeatedly proclaimed, in his writings now collected as Style & Idea, the primacy of creativity over crude mechanics – for in reality, any individuated composition requires to be controlled on every level, from micro-detail to macro-span, for only thus will the result make sense.
If there is a recipe for acquiring a ‘composer’s overview’, I think it may lie in the practice-based training whose passing I have lamented. Much in musical learning involves doing one thing in order to do another – practising a figure very slowly so as to master playing it very fast, for example – and the best way to gain that overview of a composition may be, for example, to conduct those of others, as Mahler and Strauss did, or to play ‘cello in them like the young Schoenberg himself. I am not convinced that it lies in writing exam compositions from a menu of styles and vague, non-musical ‘stimuli’, that are specified like design options.
As I ponder what I do believe in as a composition training, I am aware of a substantial philosophical gulf, one that occurs in disciplines other than music. It lies between the belief in training as practice and belief in practice as training; though a proper study of mankind is man, is a proper study of composition found in ‘just’ composing? There are fields in whose study practice must take precedence – swimming comes to mind, or driving a car. Other areas require study before practice, while becoming a lawyer involves no practical respite from study except for some work-experience.
Am I saying that composition is not part of learning composition? Of course not. For a start, I warmly welcome projects that nurture young composers under tutelage of a professional composer, such as Sound Inventors (7). I am saying that dropping onto students the task of musical organization while surrendering all training in music’s manipulations is madness, as if the mysteries of our subject-material, the inscrutable study of a lifetime, have lately declared themselves to all and sundry.
And yet... the wisdom of curricular composition for children, even without attendant technique, is hard to challenge. For schools composition is so imbued with the status of ‘a good thing’ that any doubt cast on its benefits for one and all, whatever is being done in its name, can easily be shouted down as being ‘elitism’. But what may be agreeable to those youngsters not intending to pursue classical music is now severely impeding those who might.
Even with these reservations, it is not the composing itself but the incoherence and lack of preparation, in a muddled syllabus, that is the scourge. We are routinely told by children visiting our Open Days that “they seem to be no good at composition”, having failed to conform to whatever diktat is imposed on their teachers. I gleefully persuade these students to take composition – for our soothing recruitment message to freshers is that the huge discipline of composing your own music has nothing to do with the composition of their schooling.
The politically toxic truth is that a far more useful grounding for a pathway like mine is a pair of clean ears and a secure training in traditional musical literacy, such as has been surrendered to the agenda of egalitarian self-expression. In the late 1930’s Schoenberg was already lamenting this; writing about teaching (8), he found that the student’s understanding of the historical canon
“offers the aspects of a Swiss cheese – almost more holes than cheese. Then I set the following question: If you wanted to build an aeroplane, would you venture to invent and construct by yourself every detail of which it is composed? or would you not better at first try to find out what all the men did who designed aeroplanes before you? Don’t you think the same idea is correct in music?”
The creators of our GCSE Music Syllabus are among those who do not apparently think the idea is correct. In its Introduction (9), there are set out the same concerns, worthy but generalised, that we found in the Green Paper – matters, about the syllabus being free from bias, reflecting diverse traditions and so on, that I would have thought belonged elsewhere, in a mission statement.
So: we find nothing about music study. Can it be that the new priorities are more helpful to our young musicians? Are we missing something? Well, it is a fact that the modern species of schools´ composition has, by now, been in the curriculum for long enough for its effect to be monitored; has it boosted composition for the new university student? I must say first that what the world needs is a tide of musically literate people, rather than, necessarily, a tide of young composers – so the fact that we have NOT seen sharply increased numbers of career-composers out of Queen’s is not the point (and might in any case be my own fault). And it may be, given the largely non-classical ethos of the syllabus at GCSE, that legions of children are leaving school enriched by an activity that, OK, does not include much serious training for student or amateur but involves the majority. Even that vista can be seen from my Ivory Tower. But my conclusion in looking back over ten, or come to that twenty, years in these walls is that there is no obvious increase in commitment or facility whatever among serious music students who have done composition at school. If that is not a serious indictment of the practice, I am missing something.
We have, certainly, seen an explosion in the enrolment, and our curriculum is bursting with composition output, as it is in the electroacoustic field, but that is chiefly because of what we offer to instil here. I am aware too that it is more in line with government policies today to have 45 students with no prior grounding than 12 students with A level harmony. And it may be more desirable, for political short-haulers. But I would be negligent not to be asking why all this activity in schools has apparently no implications for the development of students as composers, except for producing some discouraged youngsters. The one enduring factor that does count – one to hearten us all here – is the legacy of individual teachers or parents – still the most potent inspiration.
This is from my own experience. When I was six, we were taken from my day-school down the hill to attend the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli himself. All I remember of the event was sitting next to the girl of my choice while Sir John addressed the audience through the worst p.a. system imaginable. They played Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, but I do not remember it. The reason I know is that the previous day a teacher had erected a reel-to-reel tape recorder and talked us through the Symphony – an event that has never left me.
Today, when a friend shares with me some piece of art that lights up their life, it is usually attributed to the devotion of a teacher who shared it with them. We all have teachers to thank in this wise: In this context, the words were reported to me lately of a recent senior official to a teacher I know, warning her not to fill a GCSE class with content and ‘scare the children with composers’. If I remember the magic of finding Tchaikovsky when I was six, is it a teensy bit patronising to insulate fourteen-year olds from information? Actually, unless it can be shown that teenagers are suddenly less intelligent that hitherto, I think that insulating children from art is an outrage.
So I believe that, in art, self-expression cannot launch itself without a foundation, just as we cannot leap from a lying position. Therefore, as one involved in addressing the fall-out of the loss of skills when children become students, and as a parent, I feel justified in putting our syllabus for GCSE music under the microscope, here and now. I must add that I know from reliable sources that much of the material I am about to excoriate is regretted by our local board: elements of this syllabus are imposed across the U.K., and our local authorities are obliged to disseminate this nonsense, along with other Boards who have ceded yet more ground than ours to collapsing standards.
So. I am concerned that - while its opening section, ‘Rationale’, identifies ‘three mutually supportive areas’, performing, composing and listening/appraising – the learning that would support all of them is, I must say it once more, not mentioned. Yet, in the same sentence, students are advised ‘to have acquired some basic skills in singing and/or playing an instrument’. Why only in performance?
I am aware that there is concern in the syllabus for those who have come to performance without learning musical notation – but I am old-fashioned enough to think that the answer is to give such students the power that is literacy, rather than to enshrine the lack of it. As if no music is written down any more! I hear it widely agreed among teachers that this down-grading of written skills, to attract those who play but do not read, was a cynical mechanism to ensure continued enrolment for such exams, amid a falling market in intellectual capital. I will consider in a minute what would happen if we applied this ‘open door’ to ensure a flow of, say, mildly-trained dentists. To use Schoenberg’s analogy, then, instead of plugging holes in the cheese, the curriculum now charts a course through the holes. But music (Swiss or otherwise) is made of cheese, not of holes.
I think what lies behind this syllabus full of holes for a subject full of cheese is the inclusivity of music. When selectivity, aptitude and training are still extolled in sport and sciences, music’s very universality seems to carry the price of a fall in literacy. Again I hear the question raised ‘why would you not desire that universal belonging? Audiences for live classical music have dwindled enough.’ My answer is, again, that I do, but – to return to my starting-point – the only true access is through understanding. No one gains ‘access’ through being denied information. On the contrary, it is no accident that the audience for live classical music is so alarmingly elderly; older listeners are drawing on seeds sewn in the past, for most of us learn to attend concerts. Education makes a difference to our life-choices: if it did not, why would politicians go on about it?
I pointed out just now how theory retains a place in those other fields – sport and sciences – where folk could get hurt. Hence we are still some way from community-based surgery, where, regardless of creed or background, people can pick up a scalpel and have a poke around. But why do intelligent people not expect the same demands of music? It is far from the harmless pussy-cat they imagine.
Well – it seems that some areas of science are now, entangled in the ambivalent embrace of popular culture. Straying bizarrely into our GCSE music syllabus is one such, that of Environment – perhaps filling in those Swiss holes vacated by technique. For in that same section the syllabus offers the startling heading 1.3 – ‘Environmental Issues’ (9) – where it claims that these latter
“can be expressed...through activities related to free composition, where students may choose a brief in response to emotive... development issues, for example pollution of rivers and seas, the clearing of rain-forests...”
One does not have to be complacent about seas and forests, and I am not, to raise an eyebrow about the permission this syllabus gives itself to tell children that their music might be ‘about’ ‘emotive development issues’, and to specify what these are. Apart from the lack we have observed of the technical means of sustained musical development, it is not acceptable to me, for one, to represent music to children as a mere vehicle for ‘addressing issues’. When society construes music merely as a mute cypher for other things, it will be a lost cause. This ‘emotive issues’ approach to music is of course consonant with today’s value-system that everything must have more than merely intrinsic worth if it is to retain its funding. ‘Do we really NEED people like you?’, Mrs Thatcher apparently once asked a Professor of English. And, lo and behold, in this GCSE introduction (9), we read that one of three instances offered of the power of music is
"social, moral and ethical - how thoughts, feelings and actions can be manipulated through the pre-planned and conscious use of music to effect a particular outcome.." I was genuinely shocked to read this: I shall read it again. It appears to exhort the child to approach music merely at the level of some kind of leverage tool. Perhaps that is a misreading - it may be merely pointing to a topic for debate - but when the very next paragraph is ‘1.3. Environment’, exhorting the student ‘to address emotive development issues’, it looks very much as if this whole focus on manipulation in music is no less than a handbook, pointing the way to music as a tool for crude pictorialism, propaganda and, no doubt, 'relevance'. At very least the intent here is amazingly opaque. What is clear is that the chances for a youngster to explore an autonomous world of sound recede further, along with the technique with which to do so. Any Eurosceptics among you may not be the only ones surprised that 1.6 of this GCSE document (9) urges candidates to "develop awareness of the opportunities... presented through membership of the European Union... for example, the music Industry as a transnational and global phenomenon, the issue of human rights and Its Implications for playing loud music In public places and the issue of music copyright." In case you are thinking that you nodded off to dream that you heard a rubric about European human rights and the playing of loud music in a GCSE music syllabus, you were actually awake. When I'm next awakened myself by my student neighbours having a party, I can berate them "Has no one here even read the GCSE music syllabus on European human rights?" Again, the concern is not that ‘awareness is bad' - that it is bad to learn about copyright, or Europe, or rainforests - but that it replaces musical information that bestows real power over music - and I did not mean the volume control. I have the horrible suspicion that behind all this evasion lies, if nothing worse, a middle-aged fear that teenagers find abstract music and its demands 'boring'; that this is vicars strumming guitars again, a craven attempt to align a syllabus with what the constituency likes elsewhere, instead of making the subject interesting. So composition is presented as a fun adjunct to other things. How much more challenging than all this it would be to encourage young people to debate the view clearly expressed by Stravinsky that “music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all” (10). But there I go, scaring them off again. The GCSE document improves in the following section, which mentions 'acquiring the knowledge, skills and understanding' to progress, and also, later, 'analysing and evaluating music using a musical terminology'. But if nothing else in the syllabus actually imparts these, such aspirations are mere wisps of smoke. The most diaphanous of these wisps is under 1.7, Aims (9), which claims that the specification increases candidates' ability "to make judgements about musical quality" !
To acquire critical skills without any theoretical training is indeed asking a lot of the student. Other stated aspirations, about further study, life-skills and aesthetic sensitivity, are all desirable, and all beg the same question: ‘why not actually teach them?’ So if this rubbish is being imposed on our Board, it needs our support. Good work was done in the late 90’s by British university colleagues to re-connect ‘A’ level to university study, but they faced a stampede to turn out the lights - or rather to rip them out – by the porridge-brained authorities responsible for what we have heard.
It is against this background, then, that our composer students are having to be nurtured – and against this picture that I want now to end with a retrospective look at our composition teaching since the 1970s. They were strange times indeed, viewed through the inverted binoculars of hindsight. Composition was, essentially, tolerated. The Oxford Faculty comforted itself that ‘composition could not be taught’, a complacency that was in their case entirely self-fulfilling. I was rescued by an inspiring figure from outside, one who set about standing my every belief on its head and, firstly, giving me modern counterpoint exercises.
This training in ‘species counterpoint’ is an abstract manipulation akin to the fugue I mentioned earlier: it is not rooted in a specific composer’s work, but is more of a mental exercise, almost a meditation-exercise. My tutor had worked it as a student of Nadia Boulanger, the most celebrated composer-maker of the last century – a sign that continental teaching retained a belief in this sort of foundation, even as it crumbled here. Another older colleague has told me how a student of his went to Italy to study with illustrious teacher Goffredo Petrassi, feeling quite the young hopeful, only to be plunged into the same species counterpoint when he arrived. I have, this year, reintroduced this strand into my own composition pathway for undergraduates; as I said earlier, since composing itself has not become any easier, I see no reason why its training should be forfeiting all rigour.
Coming to Queen’s in those days, meanwhile, I found a few lingering traces of the old Oxbridge outlook! In the then four-year course, students were only offered composition in years 3 and 4, but in year 2, every one of the students (numbering c12 per annum then) was required, with no official supervision or assessment, to write a string quartet, for a group of visiting players. No one admitted responsibility for the event – which was quickly shunted in my direction – nor could they tell me its education purpose beyond the general one of ‘composition being a good thing’. One feature in particular could have come out of Oxford, or indeed from Oxford’s own son, Lewis Carroll. In fact this sad hermaphrodite - neither clearly an exercise in a classical style nor an invitation to spread one’s wings – was thus somehow prophetic of the modern GCSE and A Level. Because there was no aesthetic or technical framework, students suffered the same confusion as school composers today about the nature of the exercise. One student offered a legendary critique of this confusion by writing an enormous piece that passed through every historical style, from medieval plainsong to the 1960s –itself a demonstration of that sense of historical awareness now denied to the community of music students.
In the tutorial courses, too, lingered some of the prevailing attitude, which I characterize as ‘come and have tea and we’ll look at what you’ve written’. Students without much experience had to produce third- and fourth-year portfolio works. Yet in one respect they were well-catered for already by this School: Professor Thomas’s ground-breaking course in four 20th-century composers was an excellent foundation, one that we still teach. And as I look back on the ambition of some of those student orchestral scores, I am amazed: there was no apparent training for students in handling large-scale works, yet some were most ambitious. I must again conclude that the rigorous skill-base they brought with them for nurture at Queen’s was, as I have claimed, a sure foundation.
Nonetheless, it was for me unsustainable to offer a programme for composers that merely left them fending for themselves, as had been my own experience. I was well aware that the core skills, then still widespread, excluded practice outside the harmonic system we associate with the high Classical era. So I conceived that the student, once given that foundation, might be led into composition earlier, not through daunting portfolio tasks but via a kind of induction. Quite apart from abstract musical matters, two others press the young composer – instrumental properties and notation. These three areas then became the rotating topics of ‘Composition 1’ in 1989, and they remain so today. Some of those students continued the following year, thus inaugurating ‘Composition 2’; and so the Pathway unfolded.
I have always been proud of the induction approach – funnelling students in to sample the transferable skills – by comparison with most institutions, which tended (then at least) to admit students to composition when they could no longer keep them out. If I have a reservation about our approach, it is that we risk in today’s culture reducing the mystery and awe of composition to ‘taking a module’ rather than being impassioned by a vocation: I persist in teaching it as the latter, as best I can, and were this no longer tenable I suppose I should give up.
The undergraduate composition courses do not stand still, though we cling on to our ‘core values’. Just this year Composition 3 has taken a new form, in response to students’ shifting needs, and I am proud that the glimpse of species counterpoint in Year 1 is as it were a spot of curricular ‘up-braining’ – instead of the more familiar ‘down-dummings’ in the face of realities. Reality need not be a story of decline.
If adherence to the solid foundation of training is fogey-ish, then I confess to it, because I tend to trust solid foundations rather than the other sort. In the words of John Gielgud’s irritable Headmaster in the play 40 years On by Alan Bennett (11), “Out of date? Of course my standards are out of date! They wouldn’t be standards if they weren’t!”
Nonetheless, I hope I have outlined the shifting role of composition which, fogey or not, I must embrace. No longer a repository of traditional certainties, it nowadays begs the celebration of the awkward, the unquantifiable – and herein lies its invaluable subversion. Students are, for example, often nonplussed when I cannot specify the ‘outcome’ of a composition project; if they work as I hope, the result will not be anything I expected or could anticipate. That this slaps the face of current political orthodoxy, about the predictability and commodifying of learning, is a deep satisfaction to me, and it is endlessly beneficial to the students, who are being increasingly insulated from the intellectual risk-taking that is supposed to be enshrined in our institutions. As a Trojan Horse that trundles over the niceties of structured practice, all art should be a welcome visitor at the gates – for it bears gifts which, just because they are disruptive and are feared by those threatened by them, have the power to enrich and, even, to overturn our world.
1 Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years, Government Green Paper 2001
2 Birtwistle, Sir Harrison, The John Tusa Interview, BBC Radio 3 2001
3 Crotch, W., Elements of Musical Composition (1830), Boethius Press 1991
4 CCEA A Level syllabus for music, www.ccea.org.uk, p.20
5 Personal communication
6 Schoenberg, A., Teaching And Modern Trends in Music in ed Stein, E Style And Idea: selected writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Faber 1975, pp. 376-7
7 Sound Inventors, www.soundinventors.org.uk
8 Schoenberg, A., Composition With Twelve Tones (1) section VI, in ibid. p. 223
9 CCEA GCSE syllabus for music, www.ccea.org.uk, p.1 foll.
10 Stravinsky, I. Chronicles Of My Life, Gollancz 1936
11 Bennett, A., Forty Years On, Faber & Faber, 1996