Rethinking the Undergraduate Music Curriculum: Where Are the Performers and Their Performances

by Daniel Barolsky (Beloit College and PAIG Co-Chair)

In anticipation of our tenth-anniversary celebration of PAIG at this year’s joint AMS/SMT national meeting, a meeting that gives us the opportunity to rethink what we do and why, it seems only appropriate for this inaugural blog posting to consider the relationship between history and theory.  After all, in most music programs there are direct or indirect links between the teaching of the two disciplines.  In some cases theory provides historians with the analytical language that shapes discussions of musical “works” or, inversely,  musicologists introduce the repertoire and styles that music theorists subsequently use as their primary source material.  Regardless of the direction, the traditional study of music theory and history mutually reinforce the primacy of the musical score (as the “music work”) as the central locus of study.  Doing so the canonic repertoire (i.e. the compositions that fit both pedagogical priorities) is consolidated (there are some notable exceptions such as Matthew Bribitzer-Stull’s Anthology for Analysis and Performance).  Furthermore, not only is non-canonic repertoire largely excluded (in spite of efforts by most history textbooks to supplement the canon with the works of composers of color or by women), but so are performers.

But perhaps this isn’t entirely accurate.  Some music history textbooks include performers, yet only in the margins … literally.  In the the rare moment that a figure like Glenn Gould or Victor Maurel is mentioned, the content of the discussion is excluded from the “master narrative” and pushed, visually, into a supplemental box that merely decorates or colors the “history proper.”  Additionally, while performances are included as part of the CD anthologies, none of the commentaries actually discuss the performances themselves and the performers are relegated to an appendix.  What are some of the ways performer and/or their legacies can be integrated into the history?  Imagine a history where Gould isn’t an adjunct figure in relationship to Bach’s Goldberg Variations but a voice that contributed significantly to 20th-century conversations about technology or aesthetics.  Or consider the fact that we can actually listen to Maurel and the degree to which his style of singing transforms our view of the nineteenth-century sonic world?  How might students attempt to reconcile Maurel’s voice with the radically different late twentieth-century singers who aspire to realize  Verdi’s scores in the style of the nineteenth-century?

Similarly, many music theory texts (and even more professors) have taken great steps to challenge students to realize the potential relationship between analysis and their own performances.  But often the performers are still idealized rather than real, or their deferential relationship to the central score reinforced by the absence, in the texts, of authoritative or significant performances.  Think about  how the conversation would change were performances, historical and contemporary, central to the theory classes and where performing faculty and/or such historical figures as Alfred Cortot are given a voice.  Indeed, imagine the trajectory of a conversation that started with Cortot’s written analytical descriptions or editions.  Or what would happen if the formal ambiguities of Chopin’s G-minor Ballade was examined through the lens of Cortot’s multiple recorded interpretations?  How student performers could become more empowered when they have models whose views are respected?

The questions I want to pose are simple: To what degree does the interdependence of theory and history, on a curricular level, create a structural barrier to the inclusion of performers and broader conversations about performance in general?  And how might changes to these curricula ultimately have an impact on the teaching and perceptions of performers?  Are there ways, as PAIG seeks to expand its purview, that we can explore the extent of our disciplinary interdependence and limits?

Join the conversation! Share your comments with the “Leave a Comment” link above, and please subscribe to the PAIG blog in order to see future posts. If you are interested in writing a short essay (up to 600 words) on any subject related to performance and analysis, please contact PAIG co-chair Edward Klorman to discuss your idea.