Musicologists and Generalists: A Medieval Perspective

Kenneth Levy

Each of us faces a different set of conditions in our teaching. Let me set out the ones to which my remarks now apply. I wear two hats at my school. Under one, I am a medievalist. With graduate students and an occasional undergraduate I look for some leading edge of the medieval discipline and try to bring order and light to what I find. Under my other hat I am a generalist. Each year I lecture to about half a thousand non-musician undergraduates. They are likely to receive just that one exposure to music during their college careers. I try to give them some of the basic orientations and skills needed to expand their musical perspectives. In some cases, this may lead them from Mozart and Schubert to Mahler and Schoenberg; in others from heavy metal and Springsteen to Mozart and Schubert. Change does not come easily, but I think this endeavor is important. Those who address non-musicians are forming the concert and opera audiences of the new generation. In a small way they are influencing future support for the arts in America. That is why I feel no lesser commitment to generalist teaching than I do to the objectives of higher-flying medievalism.

Now what does the musical medievalist do with these two kinds of teaching? How does one put them together? I would like to encourage an interest in medieval music among future scholars; and I would like to foster support for groups that perform early music. Do I try to distill my little bits of insight about Gregorian chant, or Notre Dame polyphony, or the Ars nova, so that their esoteric styles and rationales become more accessible to the general student? Or do I ignore the kind of music where my own professional stake is greatest and deal only with music that has less of a gap to bridge in order to reach the general student?

My answer is a reluctant one. When teaching large groups of non-musicians under tight constraints of classroom time, I think it better to ignore the medieval and concentrate on the classics of major-minor tonality, and then to mount an advocacy for the music of our own time. Only under a very generous dispensation of teaching hours do I believe in including the medieval.

If there is to be medieval music, then plainchant is the way to begin. Its single strand speaks readily to the novice listener; its churchliness adds an obvious appeal. Indeed, it may speak too readily. Plainchant falls easy prey to romantic misconceptions, and the focus must be kept on tougher issues: scale and mode; conceptions of "form"; processes of "composition"; functions of oral and written transmission. After plainchant there might be Parisian organum or the Summer Canon; a ballade of Machaut or a madrigal of Jacopo. But with these I think one has already gone beyond the usefulness of medieval materials. With limited time in a general course, I prefer to use music whose values speak readily to present-day minds and ears. I would abandon the music in which I am most interested.

Yet if medieval music itself does not stand high on my list of generalist priorities, there are still some things that a medievalist preoccupation contributes to the fabric of my teaching. One concerns the quantity of raw fact—names, dates, places, devices—that the student is asked to absorb. To obtain a working knowledge of medieval music one must control a lot of out-of-the-way and often accidentally-preserved fact. Yet memorizing such quantities of material has little value for a general introduction to the nature of musical discourse. Most of the useful facts about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Perotin, can be gotten from reference works outside of a course. Within curricular time, and certainly within lecture time, I think it much better to disregard such externals and concentrate on learning some skills of analytic listening.

Another issue is the use of musical notation. Everyone who deals regularly with plainchant neumes is reminded that the five-line staff is a direct descendent of the oldest campo aperto notation. Those first chant manuscripts give representations that are not altogether specific; there are precise analogues of the pitch succession—of the intervallic continuity; but there are not the details of actual pitch, or all the nuances of rhythm. Those are left to the memories of choir directors and singers. The chant notations were incomplete—they were selective "diagrams". What I propose is that we take a lesson from the medieval practice and make the written interface between our undergraduates and the music depend, not on the surfeit of information supplied by a composer's score, but on much simpler means: on listening diagrams that support the novice's efforts at hearing and remembering. I don't believe we should use a full score, a piano score, even a line-score. Acquiring an elementary skill in score-"reading" gives only an artificial sense of accomplishment. It leads to recognizing, acknowledging, "following" the music, not to the sort of contemplative involvement in sound-pattern that produces deeper understanding. I also see little value in the kind of listening "diagrams" that have the student follow the music with stopwatch in hand, waiting to hear—again, to "acknowledge"—the appearance of a French horn at 1:32 or a tympani stroke at 3:17. Those are superficials.

I do teach a bit of staff-notation, but only what can be gotten into a quarter-hour. Instead, for a given piece, I try to pick some elements that are worth students' attention, and to render these in a map of the musical continuity. This may chart thematic, motivic, or tonal features (sometimes tone color); and these are translated as words, doodles, bits of musical notation. Each piece may have a different sort of diagram. My aim in these charts of musical events is to encourage analytic listening—to engage the students in evaluating the composer's choices. I want them to "hear" the shape of the forest, not just see the noted twigs. A further point: such diagrams are not to be taken as representatives of "authority"—the way a full score is. Precisely because they are independent of the composers written formulation, they can be viewed as tentative, incomplete, susceptible to improvement, provocative of further inquiry.

To conclude, my interest in medieval music reminds me of the obstacles that a novice listener must face when dealing with the foreign language of music. To reduce those obstacles, I look for synthetic means. I think that, like the medieval notator whose concern was to support the chorister's memory, today's musical generalist should be concerned with devising visual aids that support the beginning students' processes of listening and remembering. So in the end, I don't advocate a direct use of medieval music in generalist teaching. But I believe that an involvement with medieval materials can have some useful lessons.