Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Whither Our Undergraduate Core Curriculum in Theory?*

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Whither Our Undergraduate Core Curriculum in Theory?*

Article excerpt

Whither our undergraduate core theory curriculum? Whither but to more questions: What constitutes a "core" and what is its relation to, for lack of a better term, the non-core? (That our usage lacks an antonym shows the frailty of the notion.) In these post-colonial days of cultural sensitivities, is the monopoly on undergraduate theory held by a Teutonic, High-Baroque homophony - the Lutheran four-part chorale - still to be countenanced, or is it suspect of serving vested cultural interests?1 Is the aim of Canadian undergraduate training in theory to produce competent performing musicians? (And thereby what models of competence to evoke when symphony orchestras are folding like paper fans?) Or, like our colleagues in literature and art history, are we in the business of belles lettres - criticism and apologetics? Are we, at heart, in the business of musical literacy, and what does that entail: reading (surely), writing (hopefully), but also the mastery of a certain body of works - literate, as in well-read - and if so, then whose body? Given a consensus about core and canon, what can Canadians do to effect a change in core curricula? Should the Canadian University Music Society have a mandate here? Or do we leave the "whither" to industrious representatives of foreign textbook publishers? Herewith, a few reflections on such questions.

To the Core

The current notion of "core" theory seems an uncomfortable compound of two elements: poiesis (as the technique or craft of writing) and apologetics (as style analysis). By poiesis I mean, adapting Stravinsky * spoetics or poétique, the doing or making (in this case, of harmony), "the knowledge and study of the certain and inevitable rules of the craft" (hereafter referred to simply as poetics). By apologetics (again after Stravinsky), I mean the justification of personal views or "dogmatic confidences" justifying musical "masterpieces."2 My point is that the two might be taught to greater effect as separate core studies in the classroom, or else be taught as one without any pretence to "core"-ness.

Consider the workhorse of the undergraduate theory curriculum - harmony as taught from the model of the four-part Bach chorale. There are essentially two aspects that recommend the study of chorales in our classes. The first aspect is poetic: chorales have a transparent texture, narrow confines, and a strict technique susceptible to simple rules that ought to ease the poetics or craft of harmonization in any tonal form. The second aspect is apologetic: devotion to Bach is a central tenet of our literature, for his work is the rock and foundation of our aesthetic inheritance. The style of his four-part chorales encapsulates much of the genius and ability writ large in other works. Therefore the chorales are worthy of emulation through the harmonization of melodies in the style of Bach.

To mingle poetics and apologetics is dynamite. Witness the following excerpt from a theory text (Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter' s popular Harmony and Voice Leading), which, without fail, turns my undergraduates to rubble. The point under consideration is the resolution of a diminished fifth to a perfect fifth in the progression vii^sup o6^ to I or I^sup 6^, which, being like a succession of hidden fifths, is to be avoided (italics are mine):

If the dissonance is a diminished fifth, Bach tends to resolve it normally, for the progression diminished fifth-perfect fifth creates hidden fifths. As part of the diminished fifth, [scale degree] 4 will normally move up to [scale degree] 5 only if the bass moves up to [scale degree] 3 in parallel tenths, thereby bringing in the tone of resolution in another voice but very prominently. This voice leading occurs very frequently.3

There are two understandings at work here:

1. Simple guidelines for writing that direct the student in solving a compositional problem: Resolve the interval of a diminished fifth between scale degrees 7 and 4 by contraction to the interval of a third between scale degrees 1 and 3, and double scale degree 3 so as to avoid the succession of diminished to perfect fifths. …

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