The Music Department at Harvard

Emphasis Upon Graduate Program At Expense of Liberal Education

Over the past few years, the growth of serious musical interest at Harvard College has found its greatest resistance coming from the Music Department itself. In its efforts to strengthen the graduate program, the Department has all but abandoned its obligations to Harvard's liberal arts and General Education ideals. With the exception of Music 1, which is still looked upon as an inescapable duty by the Department, the courses for non-concentrators are considered to be a luxury which, more often than not, cannot be indulged. The result is that a college boasting one of the finest liberal educations in the country is failing to supply it in a subject as traditional and important in education as is music.

This situation is not due entirely to the policy of the Music Department. Many of its members would like to be able to give more courses for non-concentrators, but there are not enough professors and section men to go around. The Department is too small to carry out fully every aspect of a university musical education, and the task which it faces is simply too big for its limited numbers.

The Department has three groups of students to deal with: graduate students, undergraduate concentrators, and non-concentrators. In most departments in the college, these three groups can be dealt with in a roughly continuous program of study. The Music Department must virtually divide its courses to suit the needs of these groups. The graduates must have courses in bibliography, research, and notation which are of little value to most undergraduates. The concentrators must have courses in harmony and music history which are too advanced or difficult for the general student, too elementary for the prepared graduate. Music 1, formerly required for concentration, is now covered for the concentrator in Music 123 and 124, combination history and analysis courses.

In this more or less strict division, in a small department, some areas will have to be neglected. Since graduate students have come to Harvard only to study the department, they are the least neglected. Candidates for a Ph.D. must have a certain number of courses and guidance in order to receive a degree, and although doctorates are only awarded in the field of musicology, the presence of Walter Piston and Randall Thompson on the faculty attracts many composition students. Nevertheless, with only six permanent members in the department, even the graduate students must be content with all too few courses and very little variety.

The graduate students, particularly those of the future, are receiving much of their attention indirectly, through the new music library. In the hope that it will come to be a major center of musical research and consequently a strong incentive to study at Harvard, the library is currently the fortunate beneficiary of a large part of the Department's money and energy. It is an altogether worthwhile project, but is not in itself a solution to the problems besetting the department.

The undergraduate concentrator is in a somewhat gloomier position. After the requirements have been fulfilled there is very little room for electives (honors and non-honors candidates alike take six courses, almost all full courses), which is just as well, because the Department does not offer very many electives. Although an undergraduate occasionally can enter a graduate course--there is a Freshman in Professor Piston's composition seminar this year--most are restricted to a very small selection of courses.

A more serious problem, however, than the number of courses is the entire concentration program itself. Ideally, students concentrating in music would be drawn from four main groups: those interested in composition, in musicology, in performing or conducting, and a last category including those with or without a musical background who are using concentration in music as a reflection and intensification of their over-all college education. In a liberal arts college, it would be natural for a large number of students to fall into this group. The fact that there are very few, especially when compared with departments such as Fine Arts and Philosophy, is perhaps symptomatic of some of the draw-backs and faults of the Music Department.

To teach courses in analysis properly, the Department quite legitimately feels it has a right to expect a solid background of technical knowledge and skill. This background is not to be found in high school music appreciation courses or in a the typical instrumental training of the amateur musician. Therefore, only those with extensive previous training, usually in a conservatory, are in a position to dispense with the elementary harmony course designed to supply the basic techniques of musical analysis. Since very few performers go to college even today, almost no student is exempt from Music 51, and it is through this course that the concentrator or prospective concentrator is introduced to the Department.

Music 51 is, of necessity, a very difficult and technical course which must supply not only the materials necessary for harmonic analysis, but also a solid technical background for the future composer. There is a large amount of mechanical exercises and memorization; "real" music is used for the most part in an illustrative capacity rather than as an object of study itself. A year of Music 51 is often more than enough to persuade a student against music as a field of concentration.

Music as a Science

The criticism intended is not of Music 51 as a course so much as of its position in the concentration program. Members of the department look upon the harmony courses as a necessary evil, comparing them with the equally distasteful elementary science courses. This comparison betrays the inclination so prevalent at Harvard to approach music in a scientific manner. This may be the soundest method in the long view, but pedagogically, it is rather more doubtful. After a year of music study essentially divorced from music itself, the student may become disillusioned with music as a formal study. The technical approach, through Music 51, tends toward a kind of dehumanization of music, reducing it in the eyes of the student to a study of rules and observation, of when they are applied, and when broken.

Unpopular Theory Courses

The alternative to this approach is not necessarily the "raised eyebrows, cryptic comment, and other signs of understanding too occult for syntax" school of criticism. But the Department can, without lowering its commendable standards, re-examine the undergraduate theory courses in which concentrators complain that there are too many detailed exercises intended as a discipline for composers. And although popularity is not always a proper criterion of a good course, consistent unpopularity often indicates a basic defect; when this popularity comes from those most interested in a subject as music majors are, it should be noted and acted upon. Now that Music 1 is no longer the introductory course, Music 51, if it is to remain in its primary position, should be tempered often with the reminder that music is not identical with harmonic rules, but that it is, after all, an art which is, in many aspects, irrational.

The non-concentrator is really the step-child of the music department. An effort to alleviate somewhat the dearth of courses available to him is a projected course in music theory, Music 2, which the department will offer next year without pre-requisite. While this is an excellent addition to the catalogue, it does not begin to compensate for the fact that there is no consistent policy with regard to middle-group courses open to the general student. For the past few years, this has meant that there are no such courses. This spring, Assistant Professor Sapp is giving one, and it has attracted about five times as many students as used to be normal for such a course, despite the fact that it is given at a very crowded and popular hour. This should remove all doubt that there is a desire and a need for more courses of this type. The students should not have to wait another four years for the next.

The Music Department has stated that it wants to give more such courses, but that it is unable to do so because of obligations to graduate students, concentrators, and Music 1. It might be observed that several years ago, when there were also graduate students, concentrators, and Music 1, middle-group courses for the general student were given regularly. The fact that non-concentrators are not dependent solely on music courses does not remove the obligations of the Department to them and to the College.