Discussion of the Month – June/2016

Welcome to the fourth installment of a new feature on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month. For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.”  Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The first installment was an article by Deborah Bradley; this contribution is from Stephen McClatchie, at the time at Mount Alison University (now at University of Western Ontario). The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Musical Dialectics

Stephen McClatchie, Huron University College at Western University (previously at Mount Alison University)Screenshot 2016-05-25 19.10.35


Thesis (The Old Synthesis)

As is well known, Musikwissenschaft as a discipline is a creature of the nineteenth century. In German-speaking lands, men like Eduard Hanslick, Guido Adler, and Hugo Riemann worked tirelessly to promote the advanced study of music as part of the Geisteswissenschaften. Adler, famously, drew up the first taxonomy of the young discipline, dividing musicology into two branches, historical and systemic, which encompassed all that we now call historical musicology, music theory, acoustics, music aesthetics, ethnomusicology, and so on. While the work of scholars like François Fétis in France and Edmund Fellowes in Great Britain also contributed to the development of the nascent discipline, it was the post-Humboldt German research university that first housed musicology (used in its broadest, most-encompassing sense) as an academic discipline. Eduard Hanslick held the first professorship in musicology in Europe, at the University of Vienna.

Secular institutions for the applied study of music performance—conservatories—are, for the most part, only slightly older. The Paris Conservatoire, generally held to be the oldest of these, was founded in 1795 (although one could certainly argue that Vivaldi’s Pietà in eighteenth-century Venice as well as the Neapolitan conservatories bore certain similarities to the modern conservatory). Conservatories in most of the major cities in central Europe (e.g., Prague, Leipzig, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna) were established by the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s, there were four conservatories in London alone. The focus at all of these institutions was generally applied music in various forms: performance, conducting, and composition, for the most part. Music history and music theory, while certainly part of the curriculum, were in some senses “support” courses for the conservatory’s primary focus on the creation or re-creation of music.

In North America, these two entities—the university seminar or department and the conservatory—gradually came together in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, the Toronto Conservatory of Music (“Royal” as of 1947) was founded in 1886 and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music began in 1919. By mid-century, the latter had taken over most of the professional training of the former. A similar trajectory was followed at the University of Western Ontario and elsewhere. Some universities established departments of music earlier in the twentieth century (Brandon, for example, in 1906), but these typically offered conservatory-type training and faculty members, at the time, generally did not have research obligations.

A synthesis of these two traditions gradually emerged in Canadian university music departments in the latter half of the twentieth century, a synthesis that lasted well into the 1980s. Behind this synthesis lay the increasing professionalisation of individual disciplines in the university—a development that was particularly significant for music, which in many respects fits uneasily into the modern research university. North American musicology as a discipline began this metamorphosis in the 1930s, with the founding of the American Musicological Society. As Suzanne Cusick has shown in an article in Rethinking Music, the AMS’s founding fathers—I use the term advisedly—many of whom were European émigrés, were particularly concerned with scientific rigour and objectivity. A second aspect of this development was the rise of postwar modernism in musical composition, which coincided with this increasing professionalisation of university music studies, giving rise to the phenomenon of the “university composer,” exemplified fairly or unfairly by Milton Babbitt at Princeton.

By the 1960s or so, university music departments in Canada had generally taken shape as follows. Music students were registered in B.Mus. programs with some performance element in the curriculum (solo and ensemble), although most institutions also offered a non-performance B.A. in Music. Within the B.Mus. curriculum, four or five streams were available: performance, music education, composition, music theory and/or (ethno)musicology. Typically students would major in one of these streams. Some schools, like the University of Western Ontario, developed holistic curricula such as a common first year. What was common to all programs, however, was a singular focus on Western art music. Students learned how to perform, analyse, contextualise, and, often, teach this music with varying degrees of professionalisation depending on their majors. Faculty members with tenure were to be found in all areas study, including performance (although most institutions supplemented their tenured performance faculty with sessional or contract instructors to teach applied music). Tenured or tenure-track faculty members were expected to be active in research and scholarship as defined by their particular area of specialisation: performance, adjudication, and workshops for the performers; monographs, articles, and editions for the musicologists and music theorists; and a combination of these for music educators. In what follows, I will refer to this as the “old synthesis.”

It may be argued that I am covering this background with brushstrokes that are much too broad to adequately portray the nuance of individual institutions and people. Doubtless some research was undertaken, even in conservatories or conservatory-type departments and doubtless some applied studies were required even in research-oriented university departments—the collegium musicum springs immediately to mind in this respect. It is certainly also true that this “old synthesis” was often less synthesised than one might expect, given the turf wars that too often have characterised Canadian departments and faculties of music. Nevertheless, something of an equilibrium was reached whereby there was a shared understanding of what a music student needed to know and be able to do.


But around 1990 or so this synthesis began to break down as a result of internal and external factors. Within the university, the theoretical turn that had shaken up many disciplines, particularly the humanities, since the 1970s, had at last reached academic music departments. Work influenced by feminism, gender and sexuality studies, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and a host of other isms were all the rage and tended to destabilize the equilibrium of the old synthesis. I have a vivid memory of teaching the first course on women and music at the University of Western Ontario and feeling the need to look carefully around corners as I walked the halls, as I kept hearing reports from colleagues in the applied department that my students were beginning to ask pointed questions in their lessons. The increasing acceptance within the academy of social constructivism and the idea of music as a “text” was also destabilizing because it dealt a death blow to the privileging of the traditional canon of Western art music that lay at the heart of the old synthesis. Not longer did it seem quite as clear what a music student needed to know and be able to do. In fact, the whole concept of “a” music student was now rather fraught.

It soon became apparent that the interdisciplinary highway ran in both directions. Not only were musicologists and music theorists working with and refining paradigms initially developed by other disciplines, there was a heightened interest in music by non-musicologists (sociologists, historians of all stripes, including art, film, and literature, and so on). Our bonds with our colleagues in other faculties and departments grew stronger, but sometimes at the expense of our connection with our “family”: performers, educators, composers, and sometimes even music theorists.

The music department “family” was also under siege, to some extent, by the strong push in the 1990s and 2000s towards increasing research activity (and funding) at most Canadian universities, small, medium, and large. The Liberal government’s innovation agenda created a host of new programs like the Canada Research Chairs and the Indirect Costs of Research that tied institutional allocations to their Tri-Council research revenue. There was now a strong incentive for institutions to invest in research activity that would be eligible for Tri-Council funding, possibly at the expense of activities, like performance, that generally were not.

Outside the walls of the university things had changed as well. The increasing marginalisation of “classical music” and the ready availability of popular and world “musics” (note the plural) soon led to very different demands from would-be music students. Certainly, music students had long enjoyed (and often played) popular musics (rock, punk, jazz, etc.), but when the superior value of the Western art-music canon was not in question, it was less common to find a demand for practical training in popular styles like rock guitar or jazz singing in university music departments. Some schools have responded to this demand by introducing popular-music performance streams (or are actively discussing the possibility). It is not clear to me whether this is a good thing or not, and certainly many non-classical professional musicians are not in favour of such apparent colonialism on the part of university music departments in a postcolonial world. Throughout the country, music educators have responded to these events by revising music curricula in the schools to include exposure to a variety of musics. Have university music curricula kept up?

Finally, the 1990s and 2000s have seen significant changes in the economics of the music profession: many orchestras are in crisis or have disbanded and school music programs are always vulnerable.

How have these trends affected university music programs? It would be useful to have a pan-Canadian survey of trends in enrolment and majors in our departments and faculties of music.


If it is true that the old synthesis has started to crumble, what would a new synthesis look like? Will the new synthesis result in the (re)fragmentation of the university music department? Certainly the success of the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music could suggest this. Or might it possibly result in the migration of musical scholars (musicologists and music theorists in particular), tired of teaching only support courses, out of university music departments into cultural studies departments? Already a number of musicologists in Canada teach in Women’s Studies departments. It seems certain that other musics will continue to be integrated into Canadian university music programs and curricula—but the effect that this will have on the programs themselves in terms of recruitment and retention is not yet clear. Perhaps popular music studies will be the catalyst for the new synthesis. Another important development is the emergence of the new (inter)discipline of performance studies, which encompasses all performance disciplines and, for us, has roots for music in the historically informed performance movement.

My personal view as a musicologist is that interdisciplinarity is to be encouraged in ourselves and in our students as a means to connect music study to wider social, cultural, and ethical concerns—concerns about subject formation and identity (individual, regional, national, etc.), political and social activism (regardless of persuasion), and so on. To this end, I would welcome the further opening of our seminars to non-music students, even those not musically literate. I think that Canadian music departments should strive for the relevance and liveliness of our visual arts departments, which are intimately connected with the contemporary art scene while still engaged with the past. If only we could jettison, even to some extent, the museum culture of music in favour of an emphasis on the creation of new works alongside an engaged critical practice seen as central rather than marginal. To encourage this—and to be deliberately provocative in closing—perhaps the tenure-track should be reserved for those musicians undertaking creative, rather than re-creative, research and scholarship (of whatever stripe)?

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