Music and the University

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Music has long held a particular pride of place as a subject of formal education in the Western tradition. Part of the “quadrivium” of the seven liberal arts, alongside arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry, already from medieval times music was part of the indispensable training in thinking, and therefore a core constituent of true philosophical education. Knowledge of music was viewed as essential to the examined and just life. It, as an art, demanded that one command knowledge of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, the “trivium” that prepared one to master music, mathematics, and science represented by the remaining four liberal arts.

In comparison to the visual arts—with the possible exception of architecture (which is often compared to music)—music has therefore been held in high esteem in the university, the academy of higher learning. In the United States, it was the first of the arts to become a permanent faculty in the university. But within the arts and sciences university the teaching of music took on a quality quite distinct from the way music was taught in conservatories, music’s institutional equivalent of an arts academy, a place where one trained in a practical manner to become an artist. In the university, music was considered a core constituent of the Humanities.

The way music became defined in the American university was nonetheless not analogous to the way art history now has a place in the curriculum. The first professorship in music within the Ivy League was at Harvard. John Knowles Paine, a fine composer of orchestral music (and an ardent critic of Wagner) was its first occupant. He taught more than music appreciation. Horatio Parker taught at Yale and Edward MacDowell at Columbia. They too were composers and major figures in American musical life. Although learning to play an instrument was looked down upon (Harvard until recently did not give credit for instruction in instruments or performance), composing new music was not. As the late Milton Babbitt (the distinguished and exacting modernist composer who served on the Princeton faculty) is supposed to have replied when asked why no credit was given towards a degree in music at Princeton for studying an instrument: “does the English department give credit for typing?”

The proper subjects of study in music within the university therefore included history, theory, and composition. But from the very start of the career of music departments in our leading universities, particularly the Ivy League, music appreciation for the non major, and the support of voluntary amateur performance organizations, from choral societies and singing clubs, to orchestras and musical theater organizations designed to offer public opportunities to students to perform, were at the heart of the place music assumed at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, and Brown.

When we lament the decline of audiences, we often neglect to cite as a cause the sustained failure of music departments in these elite universities to maintain, after the 1960s, a once honored tradition of music appreciation. In part as a consequence of a desire to professionalize music history, the kind of sweeping and often “easy” general survey course once associated with Harvard’s G. Wallace Woodworth, Cornell’s Donald J. Grout, and Columbia’s Paul Henry Lang has vanished, and with it the chance to nurture interest among unwitting undergraduates in the joy of music. It is interesting to note that Cornell was the first American university to hire a professional musicologist (Otto Kinkeldey) and the first to grant a doctorate in composition.

The Ivy League has had its generous share of distinguished musicians from its undergraduate alumni, including Charles Ives from Yale, and Leonard Bernstein and Yo Yo Ma, both Harvard alumni (as is ASO’s longtime composer-in-residence, Richard Wilson). But each of these institutions now boasts impressive departments that give Ph.Ds in musicology, music theory, and composition. They have taken on an indispensable role in the preservation and furtherance of musical culture.

Given that an alternative model of institutionalizing the teaching of music also thrives in the United States—the conservatory—as a free standing institution (e.g. Juilliard, Curtis, the Manhattan School, the New England Conservatory), or a unit of a large state university (e.g. at Indiana and Michigan), or a separate school within a private university (e.g. Eastman at the University of Rochester, Peabody at Johns Hopkins, and for that matter, the graduate Yale School of Music), the question might be posed: what has been the impact of the teaching of composition within the university, and outside of what by comparison some might deem a “trade” school, the music conservatory.

It should be remembered that within the history of music, the institutionalized teaching has not always been viewed with approbation. The word “academic” is frequently used as a pejorative when speaking about art, including music. In Europe institutionalized teaching gained an unequal reputation, mostly as a barrier to innovation. In France, Berlioz ran afoul of institutions of formal instruction and the conservatism and moribund character of the Paris Conservatoire at mid century led to the establishment of rival institutions. In the Vienna Conservatory, Bruckner taught counterpoint, not composition; Mahler as a student failed to win the coveted Beethoven Prize for composition. History (and even the ASO) has long forgotten a long list of winners. Perhaps the most successful record in terms of conservatories with respect to nurturing composers can be found in Eastern Europe from Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In America, however, the existence of new concert and so-called “art” music in the twentieth century, particularly after World War II owes a special debt not only to the nation’s conservatories but also to the comprehensive university. Aaron Copland may have gone to Julliard, but Bernstein, Adams, Babbitt, Carter, Glass, Crumb, Husa, Krenek, Schoenberg, Sessions, Luening, Mason, Moore, Wuorinen, Hindemith, Shapey, Blackwood, Wernick, Piston, Milhaud, Richard Wilson (and all the composers on this program) as well as dozens of other major composers of the twentieth century (including Druckman, Tower, and Tsontakis at Bard) have owed either their education or a significant part of their livelihood to the faculties of arts and sciences at colleges and universities, not conservatories.

The inclusion of composition in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum of these non-conservatory institutions of higher education has fostered a closer link between new music and other disciplines, from mathematics to literature. It has helped sustain whatever broader consciousness and appreciation of music still persists in the educated public. In that regard, from the ear of Parker and Ives to today the presence of composers on the faculty has provided the amateur music groups within the university a contemporary repertoire, much in the spirit of Thompson’s Alleluia. Furthermore, the university has protected and nurtured a spirit of experimentation and the avant-garde in contemporary music. In the best sense, it has acted as a bulwark against crass commercialism. This last achievement has been accomplished in a manner complementary to a respect for music’s historical legacy, the great tradition of Western classical music.

So much for the past! Classical music, new and old, has never thrived as a business. It has been dependent on patronage from the 17th century on. It cannot compete as a dimension of the contemporary marketplace of entertainment that earns profits. In the decades ahead, the university, especially the well-endowed private universities—notably the Ivy League—will face the ever-increasing obligation to nurture, protect, and preserve a sophisticated (in the best sense) musical culture that is not commercially viable and not even popular. That protection will involve the research in and teaching of music’s past and theoretical underpinnings. It will involve also the education of future generations of composers. And it will require the support of the public performance of classical music, new and old, by amateurs and professionals alike.

A living and vibrant culture of classical music will increasingly be dependent on the university. The halls of academe will emerge as a refuge, a shield against a society increasingly governed by the rules and mores of “business.” Let us hope that those who govern our universities and those who support it will embrace that task and will prove equal to it. As the ASO joins with Cornell University to celebrate the founding of that great institution, we hope that the next 150 years will prove to be as fruitful and productive at Cornell with respect to music as the century and a half that preceded the year 2015 have been.