Machaut for the Masses, or, How Musicology Ruins Your Teaching

Katherine T. Rohrer

At the very end of my time today I will tell you something about new ideas on seventeenth-century English vocal music, the field in which I do most of my work; but to start I want to talk about the way in which graduate studies in musicology prepare us to do all the wrong things in the classroom.

My remarks are directed towards the teaching of an introductory music appreciation course, something that most of us do from time to time. At Columbia University we taught a one-semester music appreciation course that is required of all undergraduates and is part of the famous Columbia College core curriculum. On principle this course is taught not by large lecture classes but in small sections—twenty-five students to a class—and there were almost thirty sections of the course every semester. Of course there were not enough faculty members to cover this huge teaching demand, so the course was staffed mainly with graduate students. I suppose I taught this course about twelve times in my years at Columbia, and for two years I was the director of the course and had the opportunity of watching other people teach it. This experience reminded me of what I learned when I first started teaching, which is that one has to throw away ninety percent of the musicological interests and instincts one develops in graduate school in order to teach undergraduates successfully.

For instance, one big lesson we learn as scholars is to tell the truth—not to pass on old ideas without examining them, not to generalize from partial knowledge, not to speak out on a subject without having thoroughly investigated it first. That's great when we write our dissertations, but what happens when we hit the classroom? Instant paralysis. Everything we thought we knew as undergraduates looks shabby and dubious in the cold light of scholarship. We're afraid to open our mouths on the simplest subject without spending hours in the library reading the latest research. Now in fact this is a good instinct, not a bad one, but in my teaching life at least it has caused a lot of pain and fear—fear of saying something that is not entirely true.

Another thing we learn is to tell not only the truth, but the whole truth. If we apply ourselves in school, we come out with a marvelous knowledge of how things developed, what genres succeeded what, which personal styles exerted mutual influence, how notation reflects and doesn't reflect performance, and lots more. Then we start to teach and try to stuff all this fascinating material into fourteen weeks of an introductory class, and it doesn't work. Having just finished a seminar on, say, Mozart's operas, how do you schedule an effective two-hour class on the same for an introductory course? Suppose you're an Idomeneo freak; do you teach the quartet instead of doing Don Giovanni? I would say no, because the needs of our students have to come before our own. We have to remember that we ourselves learned to love Figaro or Don Giovanni long before we'd even heard of Idomeneo, and no matter how compelling its music is, our students just aren't as likely to have the opportunity to go see it in the opera house.

Graduate studies do tend to set us on fire with the lore of esoterica. This is reflected by a joke once passed on to me by Chappell White. A bunch of musicologists are sitting around, and the name of Beethoven comes up in the conversation. Everyone looks blank for a minute until someone says "Oh yes, wasn't he a student of Albrechtsberger?" Now when I was a student at Princeton we all knew who Beethoven was, but we were more comfortable discussing the sketches for the unfinished works between 1815 and 1817 than the way to teach the Ninth Symphony. It's so easy for us to lose our sense of priorities. I was horrified one day when I heard one of our graduate student instructors at Columbia explaining some aspect of conductus to a baffled student at a departmental review session. Now I love conductus, and I'm sure you do too, but in my book conductus has no place in a one-semester introductory music course. We're supposed to teach our students to love music, to patronize it in the concert hall and the record store, to make it a cherished part of their lives—we don't have to teach them the full story of the development of Western music in a single semester. The hardest thing I've had to do in the teaching of this course is to keep cutting and simplifying until I'm concentrating on the most basic issues in ways that will communicate my own love and understanding of the music to my students.

So what good is graduate study in musicology for teaching, then? Well, it does keep us from telling out-and-out lies, even if we can't always tell the whole truth. And it does help us to answer questions in a responsible way. If our teaching is clear and direct enough, uncluttered by those nasty details we learn in graduate school, we'll probably be rewarded by some of those gratifying questions that make us say "I'm so glad you asked that! And you're lucky to have a musicologist as a teacher, because I know the answer."

I don't get to use much of my own research in teaching undergraduates, even in upper-level music courses, because it takes so long just to explain the theoretical basis of speech stress, rhythm, and intonation in English that I never have time to fit it in. But I do have a couple of suggestions for you that stem from recent thought about English Restoration music in my own work and that of others.

First, don't ever say something like "In this piece the music fits the words perfectly" without knowing precisely what you mean. If you mean that the expressive qualities of the music enhance the meaning of the text, say that. If you're talking about the sound effects of the text—stress, rhythm, intonation—and their translation into music, be aware that at least for English we can now talk with some authority about the language but that the picture is pretty complicated. It's not really valid to examine your own speech habits and ascribe them to Henry Purcell, for instance.

Second—and this may be of more use to you—when you teach music of the later seventeenth century, especially in upper-level history classes, think about choosing one of Purcell's big stage works to look at instead of Dido and Aeneas. Dido is a terrific piece, infinitely worthy and all that, but it's hardly typical of Purcell's achievement or of the exciting things happening on the Restoration stage at the end of his lifetime. The more important pieces are the ones we are now calling "dramatic(k) operas," after a contemporary term; they are stage works in which the music is primary and the text (i.e., spoken dialogue) secondary—in other words, plays written to provide an excuse for music, as in the Broadway musical. The two dramatic operas of Purcell's that are most often recorded and written about are King Arthur from 1691 and The Fairy Queen from 1692 and 1693; both are full of music of great beauty and variety, and both are of great cultural interest as literary/musical extravaganzas. As far as I'm concerned, too, they are operas—Carmen has spoken dialogue too—so it's not accurate to tell your class that the only operas composed in Restoration England were Blow's Venus and Adonis and Purcell's Dido. You can find useful material on King Arthur in an article by David Charlton, "King Arthur: Dramatick Opera," in Music and Letters 64 (1983):183-92; on The Fairy Queen in an article by Roger Savage, "The Shakespeare-Purcell Fairy Queen: A Defense and Recommendation," in Early Music 1 (1973):201-21; and on both in Curtis Price's recent book Henry Purcell and the London Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).