Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Dynamics of Change: Feature

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Dynamics of Change: Feature

Article excerpt

Discord over vocational and theoretical aspects of music study in the 19th century still resonates in today's debates about the purpose of higher education, argues Rosemary Golding.

As anyone who has ever been accused of teaching a "Mickey Mouse" degree course will know, creating a new academic subject and winning credibility and respect for it are not easy tasks. Traditional subjects face challenges, too: in the modern world, demands for relevance, "employability" and "transferable skills" are changing the face of some long-established disciplines. Such pressures to conform are nothing new, however, as illustrated by my research into music's place and identity in higher education during the 19th century.

Music was not a new degree subject at the time, but it bore little resemblance to the discipline as we know it today. Degrees in music had been awarded at Oxford and Cambridge since the 15th century, and professorships founded in the 17th. But universities provided no tuition, and did not even expect students to be resident or to enrol at a college. Nor was there a requirement to obtain the basic general education required for all other degrees. Music degrees were based on composition alone, and there was no formal written examination.

It was during the 19th century, though, that music as a university discipline began to receive attention in the UK. One of the key reasons for this was the low social status of music performers and composers at the time. The music profession was unregulated, and employment was unreliable and poorly remunerated. Many of those who cared about music's position in society argued that graduates should be required to form a closer connection with universities: this would improve standards and raise the status of the profession. Such concerns were further fuelled by a musical revival in the Anglican Church.

The result was the "academicisation" of music in universities during the second half of the 19th century. Music was increasingly brought into line with other degrees through the introduction of written examinations and, eventually, general educational requirements and compulsory residence.

The first institution to address the idea of music as an academic subject was not driven by concerns over musical standards, however: it was prompted by money, in the form of an endowment. General John Reid left a large fortune to the University of Edinburgh with the intention of setting up a professorship of the theory of music. When the sum arrived at the university in 1837, the professors and trustees of the university set about defining the study of music in a way that would fit the university's existing curriculum and identity.

Edinburgh's reputation was built on science. The trustees understood "theory of music" to exclude practical tuition in performance, but there was little precedent elsewhere for teaching the elements of music familiar in departments today, such as history, aesthetics or analysis. In other institutions, musical acoustics had been studied from a wholly scientific perspective, but there were no university curricula or degree courses to use as a model.

Given the low status of the music profession, there was also understandable concern about introducing music as a university subject. Reid's will, however, had stipulated that the new professor should "contribute to give stability, respectability and consequence" to the university. The conclusion was that music would need to find a new guise in which to enter the academy - so the trustees turned to the idea of music as a science in a bid to align it with other subjects and create a discipline with clear boundaries and an unmistakably academic identity.

Reporting on the requirements for the professorship in October 1838, the trustees explained that they had "endeavoured to select such terms, as shall ensure a course of instruction fit to be adopted in a great University; avoid the danger of too mechanical a course on the one hand; or a mere history on the other, to be collected from Books; and such in short as shall point out to those who may propose to become candidates the necessity of combining the higher departments of Harmonics with the very curious and interesting phenomenon of Acoustics and the principles of Musical Composition". …

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