Some Observations and Suggestions for Rethinking Music Humanities


In the current climate of xenophobia and the desire to cut national funding for the arts, it is an ethical responsibility of teachers—especially at the university level—to reevaluate the way we teach and think about music. This responsibility is particularly relevant in the case of Music Humanities, a Core Curriculum course that all Columbia College undergraduates are required to take. How can we, as Music Humanities instructors, teach music in a way that corresponds with the diverse nature of Columbia’s undergraduate population? How can we respond to the fact that the current administration’s actions have very real consequences for some—if not all—our students? I argue that we should teach the Western art music tradition in tandem with case studies, explicitly drawing attention to the values and ideologies that underlie this tradition. My hope is that this discussion will also be helpful for instructors of similar courses at other academic institutions.

First, I will briefly describe what Music Humanities is and the way that it is currently taught, even though there is some flexibility in the content and approach of the course. Masterpieces of Western Music (“Music Humanities”) is a small, discussion-based class—a maximum of twenty-five students—that provides a basic introduction to the history of Western art music from the Middle Ages up to the present. Students are primarily, though not entirely, non-music majors. The class focuses on particular musical works (“masterpieces”) as a way of developing critical listening skills—that is, in terms of being able to identify genre (i.e. type of composition), place and date of composition, and basic style and formal features (melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, texture, timbre, form). Each instructor has some freedom to decide which musical works are taught and how these works are taught. There is, however, a basic list of works that must be taught by all instructors, and this list is mainly of white men (see list here). Currently, it is up to the individual instructor to expand this canon and/or present it in a critical light. In many cases, this is done in a superficial way or not at all.

In order to combat a highly exclusionary canon and tokenism, it is necessary to refine the aims of Music Humanities, both on the syllabus and the Core Curriculum website. It should be an explicit objective of the course to critically examine the values and ideologies underlying the Western art music tradition. This means investigating how this tradition is bound up with values that exclude and marginalize people in terms of gender, sexuality, class, religion, ethnicity, race, and disability.

One way that I propose to realize this critical aim is to adopt a case-study approach in tandem with a chronological presentation of the Western art music tradition. Each semester, the instructor would be responsible for teaching four or five case studies—these case studies corresponding with the instructor’s expertise. The case studies may examine examples of the interplay of vernacular and Western art music traditions, voices from the margins of the Western art music tradition, and/or traditions from outside Western art music that critically reflect on the latter. These case studies could be discussed during the weekly staff meetings.

I will now provide a sample case study—one that is still an ongoing project for me. This semester, I taught a session on Will Marion Cook, William Grant Still, and Duke Ellington. My objective for this session was to highlight how African-American composers were barred from participating in the Western art music tradition. In some cases, early 20th-century African-American composers were able to overcome racial boundaries through the interplay of vernacular and Western art music traditions. For instance, in William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, he incorporates blues into sonata form in a way that does not negate the difference of the two traditions.

I offer these observations and suggestions as one possibility of how Music Humanities can respond to the current political climate. By arguing for a critical approach to the Western art music tradition, I’m not saying that this tradition should be removed from the syllabus. On the contrary, my point is that the Western art music tradition should remain the focus of Music Humanities, but in a way that explicitly articulates the need to present this tradition in a critical light.

My Top 5 List of Favorite Works to Teach in Music Humanities


Music Humanities is part of Columbia College’s innovative Core Curriculum, a set of courses required of all undergraduates. (Above: Panoramic view of Columbia University, Morningside Campus)

1. Schubert’s “Erlking”

Nothing beats bringing out the different voices and character roles in Schubert’s setting of “Erlking,”  as well as finding examples of word painting (“wiegen und tanzen,” “Gewalt”). I like to begin with a dramatic reading of the Goethe text, and then listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s 1968 recording with Gerald Moore (see the 1999 DG reissue of Schubert: Goethe Lieder).

Looking for a new angle? Try juxtaposing Schubert’s “Erlking” with Carl Loewe’s “Herr Oluf,” a setting of a text by Herder that introduces the erlking’s daughter (who is just as sinister as – or even more so than – her father). The story is as follows: Herr Oluf is off riding his horse on the night before his wedding when he encounters the erlking’s daughter, who promises him wealth and a good time if he will dance with her. Herr Oluf refuses and, as a result, the erlking’s daughter curses him. The next morning, when Herr Oluf’s bride-to-be looks for him, she finds him dead. Need a recording? Listen to Thomas Quasthoff (see his Romantic Songbook on DG), who brings out the (initially) playful character of the erlking’s daughter along with her snarly voice and the fateful curse.

2. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

In my humble opinion, teaching this piece is all about finding the right recording. None compares to Michael Tilson Thomas’s 1998 recording with the San Francisco Symphony (on the RCA label).

Symphonie fantastique (SF) is about much more than just opium-induced dreams and autobiographical details (Harriet Smithson). Rather, it is an attempt to create a sonic depiction of the grotesque, a concept that Berlioz borrows from Victor Hugo (see the preface to the latter’s 1827 play Cromwell). The grotesque is the opposite of the beautiful, and refers to the horrible, shocking, and comically ridiculous aspects of life and nature. In terms of music, this meant taking existing conventional forms (sonata, ternary form) and distorting them and juxtaposing them in new shocking ways. It also meant depicting nightmarish scenes of the supernatural. (For more on Berlioz and the grotesque, see Francesca Mary Brittan’s 2007 dissertation, especially pgs. 193-200.)

Berlioz’s SF is also an early example of a composer responding to urban experience, more specifically of living in Paris during the early 1800s. The idea of art as a response to urban experience  has been explored at length by Anselm Gerhard (see his Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century), but he does not discuss symphonic music. Just as much as the grand operas of this time period, Berlioz’s SF seems to capture the “stress and confusion of life in a large city” (Gerhard). Movements like “A Ball” and “Procession to the Scaffold” depict enormous crowd scenes in which the individual loses his or her identity. “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” recreates the urban experience of sensory overload and startling juxtapositions of sound.

3. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

In his Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven creates his own sonic universe in which human beings are in harmony with nature (even if this harmony is briefly challenged by the thunderstorm of mvt. 4). The Sixth Symphony is also a perfect way to introduce other examples of composers depicting scenes of nature (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Haydn’s The Seasons, Debussy’s La Mer, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome).

When I teach this piece, I like to challenge Beethoven’s statement that the Sixth Symphony was “more an expression of feeling than painting” (mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei). As David Wyn Jones (1996) points out, when Beethoven began composing this piece in 1803, critics were attacking music with explicit programmatic content and imagery. Anticipating such criticism, Beethoven attempted to draw attention away from the examples of tone-painting in his music (e.g., the bird calls in mvt. 2 and the thunderstorm in mvt. 4). In keeping with writers such as Johann Jacob Engel who argued that music’s power resides in its ability to convey feelings rather than depict actual images or events, Beethoven claimed that his symphony was conveying the feeling of well-being associated with country life and not depicting the countryside itself. Yet if we compare Beethoven’s symphony with examples from Haydn’s oratorios (The Creation and The Seasons), which were enormously popular at this time, we see that Beethoven’s audience was very likely to hear examples of tone-painting in his symphony.

I like to teach this piece with the 2001 DVD of Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome. Looking for just an audio recording? Try Harnoncourt’s 1991 Teldec recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

4. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

In Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte create a series of farcical situations that even outdo the movies of Billy Wilder (see for example the latter’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot). By definition, a farce is a series of improbable situations, each one in turn leading to scenarios that are even more comic and absurd. A perfect example is the Trio from Act 1, scene 7 (“Cosa sento”). In the immediately preceding recitative, Cherubino is forced to hide after the Count walks in on him and Susanna. The Count, who has been making advances to Susanna, in turn hides when Basilio enters. Eavesdropping on Susanna and Basilio, the Count jumps out from his hiding spot when Basilio describes how Cherubino has been flirting with the Countess. During the course of the trio, the Count discovers the hiding Cherubino and, thinking that Cherubino and Susanna are having an affair, accuses Susanna and women in general of having no morals. The momentum of this series of improbable events is intensified by Mozart’s music. Mozart casts the trio in a sonata-like form in which each of the three characters has his or her own theme. Especially humorous is how the musical form seems to break down when the Count discovers Cherubino, as if the form cannot contain the Count’s anger. Throughout the scene, the action moves forward, only pausing to reflect on the Count and Basilio’s statement that “all women are the same” (Così fan tutte).

For a dramatically convincing reading of this scene, see the 2006 Salzburg production by the director Claus Guth. Claus Guth adds a fifth character to the scene, a Cupid figure who manipulates the other characters and propels the momentum of the farce forward. For an audio recording, look no further than René Jacobs’ 2004 recording with Simon Keenlyside (the Count), Patrizia Ciofi (Susanna), Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro), Angelika Kirchschlager (Cherubino), and the Concerto Köln.

5. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, mvt. 1

In addition to drawing attention to the ritornello form (the alternation of refrain-like sections with contrasting episodes), I like to teach this piece in terms of the following narrative. J.S. Bach had two sides, a fun-loving Italianate side and a dark, brooding German one. In the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the Italianate side manifests itself in the strong rhythmic drive and the use of a secular genre, the concerto grosso, which contrasts a small group of soloists (the concertino) with the orchestra (the ripieno). The German side is evident in the motivic and thematic consistency between the ritornello and solo sections, especially the frequent appearance of the descending fourth motif. In reality, the Italianate and German aspects of Bach’s music are two sides of the same coin. That is, the two sides cannot be separated. This is particularly evident in the cadenza, which is unusual for featuring an instrument (the harpsichord) normally associated with the continuo. The cadenza presents a thick web of the descending fourth motif, yet it also displays a great deal of rhythmic variety and conveys the impression of improvisation and spontaneity.

My favorite recording is Jordi Savall with Fabio Biondi (violin), Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord), and Le Concert des Nations. An equally impressive recording is Trevor Pinnock’s with the English Concert. No harpsichordist will ever surpass Pinnock’s cadenza in terms of virtuosity and sheer rabidness.