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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Scholars and Performers

By William A. Weber

If Academe has reared music in America, it nurtured the performer, the listener and the musicologist quite apart from each other. Yet now the boundaries are growing fuzzy: Harvard, whose music department has emphasized musical scholarship, draws many quite talented performers, and one can hardly distinguish the future professional from the amateur. But a nervous touchiness of the performer towards the musicologist raises the question of just what place performance holds in a scholarly institution.

An influx of concentrators newly interested in music underscored the necessity for at least basic mastery of piano technique on the part of each concentrator. Music cannot, after all, be studied well without enough piano skill to train the ear, to read scores and to develop a modicum of acquaintance with actual presentation of the art. The department required such ability at the piano under Professor Merritt's chairmanship, although no credit was granted for the fulfillment of this requirement. The appointment of a distinguished pianist, Miss Luise Vosgerchian, to direct the instruction has given it new emphasis.

However, even the most talented performers do not appear to want credit for instrumental study. Such is not, after all, what they came here for. In any case, the performers' backgrounds and talents vary so greatly that uniform standards of achievement are out of the question; conversely, judging a student merely on time spent would make a good mark as meaningless as one in PT.

Some players even fear that theoretical analysis will stultify their musical instincts. Yet they ignore how close the specific insights of performance are to those of analysis, however much the two differ in their expression. Actual performance differs from a college course because the performer need not describe music in words. And much instrumental study is, of course, simple diligence. College teaching aims to produce a general facility to formulate ideas and express them clearly, whether in words or numbers. While the study of music theory and history can give this facility, performance can not.

The most prominent issue raised about performance--what place should faculty members hold in student music groups--now appears near resolution. Both Archibald Davison and G. Wallace Woodworth directed the Glee Club as invited unofficial advisors; the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra prized its independence from the faculty and paid as well as appointed its own conductor. But a move for closer collaboration came to a head when the directorship of the Glee Club changed hands, and Elliot Forbes arrived as the first music professor to both conduct and teach.

This precedent ushered in the faculty appointment of Michael Senturia as conductor of the HRO in 1959. Nevertheless, the department wished to move slowly, and stipulated that his term as instructor not be renewable. But Senturia's work with the orchestra had raised its quality remarkably, and last spring the orchestra's officers and the faculty committee agreed that his successor, to be chosen very shortly, will hold a normal instructorship capable of promotion.

This change in music at Harvard has in part come from a closer contact with the faculty, Senturia in particular. (It is, however, an open question how an older conductor would follow in his steps in this respect.) Greater attendance of faculty at student concerts is a small item but a significant one, for it springs from a new seriousness of students which stimulates faculty interest in return. Performance is still extra-curricular, but it is now closer to the faculty itself.

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