The role of music theory in professional music education, a historic overview

Patrick van Deurzen


2. The increasing complexity of the music and the development into individual compositional styles in the 20th century

During the 19th century, the musical language gets more and more complicated, not only from a compositional, but also from an instrumental perspective. The sonatas of Beethoven, and especially the Hammerklavier sonata of 1818, could be seen as a breaking point. Carl Czerny told Beethoven, or actually, he wrote it down in his conversational scrapbook since Beethoven was deaf, that “a lady in Vienna who had been practicing for months complained that she still could not play the beginning of the sonata” (Rosen 1971:404). Charles Rosen points to this work as “the emancipation of piano music from the demands of the amateur musician was made official, with a consequent loss of responsibility [of the composer] and a greater freedom for the imagination” (Rosen 1971:404).

Where one can imagine a simplified partimento bass as a preparation for a more complex one, because of the mostly diatonic characteristic of the style, the increasing chromaticism in the 19th century, together with its increasing virtuosity, makes it more and more difficult to derive a simple musical structure that stays in the style of the more difficult works. Here something stagnates: you will always need a simplified diatonic style to prepare yourself for more complex chromaticism, therefore the historical gap between a mostly diatonic style, and the increasing chromaticism in music of the 19th century becomes a fact.  This problem increases in the 20th century, with an extra complication: the musical language becomes more and more individualised by each composer, and even by each new work, or set of works a composer writes. When comparing Schoenberg's String Quartet no. 2 (1907/1908), Friede auf Erde (1907) and the songs from Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908/1909), we see a stylistic range from post-Wagnerian chromatic harmony, to modal, to post-tonal music, which is unprecedented in music history. It would be impossible to describe these works with one grammatical system, even more if we would add the Preludes (1909/1910) by Debussy to the comparison. In the 20thcentury, the changes in compositional methods and styles follow up on each other even more rapidly. Danny Butt writes that pre-20thcentury art academies were mostly concerned with the reproduction of a disciplinary tradition, a method that was destroyed during the 20th century (Butt 2017:47). The same could be said of the conservatoire, with Debussy’s discussions with Guirald as a starting point. Bruckner himself was aware that Sechters exercises had little to do with his own compositional style, but was still willing to do them without protest. Debussy however starts to question the whole idea of writing traditional exercises. This element of destruction becomes a strong voice in 20th century art itself. Artists often discuss their works as a destructive act towards their own tradition, and then especially the 19th century romantic tradition. One could think of the primitivism of Gaugin, Rousseau or Klee. The way these artists want to escape or ignore the European tradition, goes beyond a mere putting itself off against a previous generation. In music, the same feeling is expressed by composers of the post-world war II generation in Europe, especially by Boulez who wants to blow up opera houses and destroy the very Hammerklavier sonata that marked the beginning of the art for art’s sake idea, of which Boulez himself would become the culmination.


Now, from a 21st century perspective, and with the possibility to overlook the 20th century, it is clear that some techniques from 20thcentury music are easier to learn than techniques from the common practice. Think of parallel voice-leading, used by Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and many others. The simplicity of parallel voice-leading, compared to voice-leading in functional tonality, is as shocking as it is that it is never been used as an argument to start a harmony course with this technique. The most likely answer is that a student understands parallel voice-leading, once (s)he has studied the common practice style first. But what counts for one, obviously does not have to count for the other, since we do not study 16th century modal harmony before moving on to 18th century functional harmony.

Harmony and Counterpoint books that primarily used to be methods for composers to be in touch with contemporary grammar, slowly lost their value because the grammar and style of contemporary composition became too complex to function as a starting point for education. What we see next, is a remarkable transformation of these Kompositionslehre, into real Musiktheorie, which is essentially a way to deliberately study a certain style from the past. A good example of this is the genesis of Knud Jeppesen's counterpoint method. First written in 1923 as an “exclusively historical study’ on the style of Palestrina (Jeppesen 1992:ix), he -after attempts to use it at some German universities as a textbook for writing counterpoint -wrote a counterpoint method with a set of Fuxian exercises that became one of the important counterpoint methods of the 20th century.  


Today, writing counterpoint or harmony is not merely, or maybe not even primarily a gateway to composition, but to understanding and analysing a certain style, and by doing so to sharpen the taste for a ‘dead’ language. A language that is not spoken anymore by contemporary composers, and therefore needs to be studied and analysed. Think of De la Motte’s Harmonielehre (1976) or Counterpoint (1981), or Cook’s Analysis through Composition (1996). It is a way to get closer to the style, to bridge the ever increasing gap between the present and the past. It should be said, as Michiel Schuijer remarked[1], that both De la Motte and Cook, with their type of exercises, also wanted to give the student a creative impulse. However, they were not meant as compositional exercises, in the sense that they should lead to ‘concert’-compositions in the style of a certain period. Analysis, which is at the core of (Dutch) music theory education, was born, and the necessity for the student to connect with contemporary composition is broken and gone. Even the contrary happens: the books, manuals and treatises are being used to study a historical style. It is maybe no coincidence that during the same 19th century an increased interest in the so called ‘early music’ becomes more and more prominent, and a distrust and hostility grows towards contemporary music. This even though, as Paul Craenen remarked[2], the practitioners of old and new music were both resistance movements against classical music in the romantic sense. We see this distrust to contemporary music for example in the ‘Bach-revival’ in the late 19th century, as a way to ‘save’ German music (Walter Frish 2001-02) or the 1917 pamflet  Futuristengefahr of Pfitzner as a reaction to Busoni’s Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1916). The tone of this distrust and hostility never disappeared until today, as for example writers like philosopher Rodger Scruton prove. See for example his chapter 8 “Understanding”, in his book The Aesthetics of Music, where he discusses the relation between compositional technique and understanding music: “A composer may put a piece together according to some elaborate intellectual system….”  To illustrate this, Scruton does not choose an example of complex retrograde counterpoint by Bach, but a second-rate composition of Krenek that uses retrograde counterpoint, comparing it to an easier intellectual compositional system, namely inversion, in the music of Mozart and Bach. By doing so, he gives the impression, or suggests, that there is something intellectual in the use of a technique in one style (for example a-tonality, serial music) that leads to a kind of music that we do not understand, while in another style (tonal music) there is a relation between something intellectual that we understand perfectly (Scruton 1997, p. 212). Scrutons The Aesthetics of Music would deserve a full article to discuss, but this would go far beyond the subject of this paper.

[1] In an e-mail discussion.

[2] In an e-mail discussion.