"Music History" as a Set of Problems: "Musicology" for Undergraduate Music Majors

James A. Hepokoski

One of the general questions facing this panel is: "How does one's research influence one's teaching?" In the best of educational worlds, one should be surprised that this is a controversial matter at all. In principle, there should be no sharp division between research and teaching, for ideally one brings similar attitudes and the same kinds of critical thinking to both. But in the real world what probably comes to mind as the sticking point of this question is the issue of data selection: whether the information gathered by specific, highly specialized research can be imported in unfiltered fashion into the undergraduate classroom.

My own field of research, for example, is nineteenth-century Italian opera, and I must admit that most of the specific results of my work were not reported in my Nineteenth-Century Survey course for Oberlin Conservatory sophomores and juniors. One simply does not find much occasion—or desire—to reveal that "There is a provocative detail to be found on fol. 76v of the Otello manuscript," or to wax eloquent about the allure of sketch-study or musical revisions to students who are sometimes not deeply familiar with either the composer or the piece in question. And, clearly, this is to be expected: these things are specialized concerns, of interest mainly to those who are already acquainted with the fundamentals and are now prepared to grapple with and savor the details of individual compositions.

The looming problem, then, is this: in what sense can knowledge of the specialized inform our teaching of the general? And that is a far larger question. Much more important than this matter of "my research" is a sense of the whole enterprise—"everyone's research". Much more important than the issue of which "facts" are to be transmitted is the question of attitude—the manner in which one approaches an evolving body of knowledge at the undergraduate level. My preferred solution to this problem of the specialized and the general pivots on this cardinal point of attitude. That is, although one does not often engage specialized intricacies in lower-level courses, one must nevertheless sensitize students to the existence and the texture of the "higher" musicological enterprise that they might wish to touch more directly one day. If musicology is not always taught per se, it should at least be referred to frequently, "invoked," much as one might invoke the Calculus (as a kind of mathematical promised land) to those students beginning Algebra 1.

Now again—and more specifically—each year at Oberlin I taught two semester-surveys for Conservatory students: courses in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. And as I reflected on this "foretaste-of-musicology" concept (which has apparently been a tacit assumption of mine for some time), I developed a set of four principles—mostly articulations of common problems to avoid, as it turns out. Each principle is informed by and directly related to the concerns of one's own musicological research. Each invites the classroom teacher to make frequent reference to that wider world of musicology, in order to help the students sense some of the excitement and sheer contentiousness of the discipline.

The first suggestion is: Do not teach material or employ methodologies that will have to be discarded at a higher level of interest or expertise. This is difficult counsel—perhaps impossible counsel—to follow, but it drives to the heart of the matter. At the most general levels we may not be able to use sketch-study, or sophisticated literary-critical or philosophical argumentation, or full-blown Schenkerian analysis or other new twentieth-century analytical techniques, but we can—and should— present our materials in a way that is at least congruent with these things. We should try to introduce some of the flavor of the higher modes of thought, and to do so in such a way that students coming to these topics full-strength later will experience not something totally new but a sense of recognition. This applies particularly to theoretical approaches to music. The simplest example that I could come up with along these lines—a perhaps too simple example—is the inevitable discussion of the "Petrushka chord" or the typical Rite of Spring harmonies. For the past decade or two many prominent theoretical discussions (by now commonly known) have been casting doubt on unqualified or unelaborated "bitonal" or "polytonal" interpretations of these sounds. Taken at mere face value, bitonality and polytonality are things that students will have to qualify radically, or even "un-learn," if they ever begin to deal seriously, for example, with octatonicism and octatonic-diatonic interactions, or other provocative new approaches to Stravinsky. But the "newer" concepts (and their surrounding controversies) can be presented, or at least introduced in some way, at the earliest levels, even if they cannot be expanded in full detail. Anticipatory nods can be made in their direction. The same thing applies to all such topics that are currently central concerns of musicological thought, such as the problems endemic to the Schubertian practice of employing double secondary tonalities (or "three-key expositions") within the first portions of his sonata forms, or the issues and implications surrounding Brahmsian "developing variation," or Carl Dahlhaus's paradigms of the driving aesthetic forces in music over the past four or five centuries. Even in relatively introductory classes one can touch upon the Schenkerian concept of sonata form (at least some issues can be introduced in an elementary format, with simplified diagrams), or the possibility of what have been called double-tonic complexes in the works of Wagner and Mahler, or the much misunderstood basic nineteenth-century Italian operatic structures, and so on. Clearly, no single teacher can become acquainted with all higher levels of all subjects. But the idea remains as a goal. Thus, to restate the first principle: "Even though the highest levels of thought cannot be presented fully unfurled in class, be sensitive to and aware of how these levels are currently treating the topic at hand."

The second principle: Avoid conveying an image of "Music History" as a static, settled body of data. Rather, include provocative new discoveries, recent controversies, quarrels about values and methods of inquiry, and so forth. Musicology, I think, teaches us a valuable lesson. Knowledge and "facts" are tenuous things. They are subject to revisions and turns of fashion, challenges, and changes. Accordingly, we should "let students in" on some of the more spectacular or controversial issues—precisely to stress this notion of a live and growing body of knowledge, few portions of which can be assumed to be immutable and protected from reinterpretation. I suppose that the "hidden program" of the Lyric Suite is now commonly mentioned in classrooms, but how about the most recent theories of Schumannesque or Wagnerian "narrative" or "symphonic" structures? And the point is to mention names: who discovered or proposed what, and when? Or: "Prior to the work of [Mr. or Ms. X] it was thought that . . . . But now, however, . . ." and so on. Students respond to controversy and to things that are not settled, that leave room for their own thought. The second principle urges us to conceive the undergraduate classroom as an introduction to a set of problems—problems considered within a content-rich, "fact-rich" environment. The guiding maxim is, if possible, to avoid giving the impression that one is passing on uninterpreted data or inert facts (the "telephone-book" approach to music history), for the truth is that no information is ever conveyed "neutrally," liberated from the axioms underlying its selection. Rather, one should strive to "expose" these underlying axioms (in however friendly a manner—it need not be hostile) and then to weave the crucial facts into coherent strands of a compelling narrative fabric: each datum arrives interpreted, and everyone in class needs to know it. Facts are valuable, that is, only insofar as they make reflection possible. This past year my nineteenth-century survey was fundamentally "about" the problem of creating and validating absolute instrumental music—a perhaps some what Dahlhausian concern. I tried not to lobby or to take sides, and (I hope) avoided pat answers. But the "facts" were placed within this general context and treated as something like individually proposed "answers" to the larger questions of nineteenth-century history. The unstated invitation of the class was to master enough factual material to be able to take part in the ongoing debate.

The third principle follows directly from the second: Alert students early (and frequently) to the factors of bias, ideology, or misleading oversimplification in textbooks—and in one's own lectures. How sad if students ever equate "music history" with a textbook! I must confess that I do not like textbooks much, particularly when they are used unquestioningly, that is, when they are perceived not as "interpretations" but as presumed collections of objective fact itself—sadly, the standard undergraduate response. My view is different. Nearly all of the principal textbooks seem to me to be unashamedly biased (nearly always either towards the concerns of nineteenth-century German and Austrian composers and "Romantic/progressive" compositional values or towards manifestly Austrian or, far less often, French "modernist" ideologies); and most of the textbooks are overly generalized, too self-confident in their data-assembling, too covertly suggestive that all the facts and values therein are unalterable. This "Germanic-Romantic" perspective&#8212encountered typically as a set of hidden, unstated postulates driving the assessments and guiding the language-choices—is especially obvious to those scholars pursuing work outside of that immediate field of interest (work in Italian opera, for instance, or in nineteenth-century nationalism), or to those striving for relevant new perspectives on the canon (such as socially oriented, feminist, or "listener-response" perspectives, or, most recently, the perspectives of structuralism or deconstruction). The larger point here, again, is to use the techniques of "musicology" as a device to convey a lesson in controversy, critical thought, the hazards of bias, and the power of word-selection. By no means does this approach downplay the mastering of basic factual content. On the contrary, it should enhance it by raising its level: to adopt some of the language of the current general educational debate, "cultural literacy," or, for us, "music-historical literacy," needs to be given its full measure of respect. Still, within a factually saturated, content-rich course, the classroom activity can become a model for thought—for the posing of hard questions—and this is very much an "introduction to musicology."

Fourth, and finally: Avoid implying that the crucial "aesthetic" features of the music of prior periods are easily accessible to us today; emphasize the importance of cultural contexts and differing modes of social and musical expectation and perception. This, too, is a fruit of musicology that can find its way into the classroom. Music is not a "universal language". Different cultures will perceive different things within a piece (such are the direct concerns, for instance, of Rezeptionsgeschichte); music often "meant" different things to its first audiences. Some of today's more sophisticated music majors (or Conservatory students) come to class believing that certain pieces or styles are easy to absorb, as pleasant consumer items: a Schubert song, perhaps, or a Bach chorale, or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But these pieces are not "easy," and, moreover, I am increasingly convinced that "familiar" or presumably "simpler" music presents the greatest challenge of all, precisely because it lulls us into thinking erroneously that we actually do understand it. But in some important ways things like Donizetti's cabalettas can be more difficult to "understand" than, say, the individual scenes of Berg's Kozzeck, because of the predisposed attitudes that we all too often bring to them. Our "individualistic-Romantic" attitudes are already "in place" for the Berg—what we need now are technical skills to reinforce them; but for the presumably simpler Donizetti pieces we need to remake our whole value system, to step outside of ourselves and our own twentieth-century quick responses and habits a far harder task. For music majors and Conservatory students we occasionally need to defamiliarize the classics, to make them more difficult, to expose levels of meaning and apparent intention that the students had no idea that the music had. And the techniques used and the methods appealed to are eminently "musicological."

One class that I found particularly rewarding was a discussion of the first portion of Chopin's Andante spianato. We heard it three or four times throughout the hour, with the perhaps unusual goal of making this seemingly transparent piece more "difficult," more alienated from conventional, late-twentieth-century "new world" aesthetic values. The procedure was to appeal to the work's nineteenth-century sociological context, to what we know of the qualities of the pianos that Chopin preferred and what little we know of his performance habits, and to conceivable nineteenth-century views of its structure and patterns of ornamentation. The point of the class—its refrain, so to speak—was that Chopin was having a private conversation with, in this case, uppermiddle-class and upper-class Parisians in the 1830s and 1840s, a conversation founded on the particular social and aesthetic assumptions of those classes in that time and place. In the modern world, these are not our natural starting-points, and because Chopin's "conversation" was not intended for us to overhear, we are likely to miss much of its thrust. This point of view seems to me to be far healthier than an adherence to the "universal-language/easy access" fallacy. And it works: as mentioned above, students respond well to the honesty of the approach.

A word of warning, however, is appropriate at the close. No "method" or set of procedures can save or vitalize an ineffective communicator. Teaching is a function far more of personality than of method. But with this general caveat in mind, I would suggest the following in summary. The attitudes of musicology that can and should be in the undergraduate classroom are: that no issue is closed; that it is far easier to say something that is not true than something that is; and that the pursuit of knowledge—a rough-and-tumble enterprise—is the real heart of "musicology," and it is the very feature that makes it so compelling to those who are driven to think about music.