Now Amy Bauer’s posts have got me thinking about music that adheres to theoretical paradigms versus music that doesn’t.
In theory class, I feel as much as any professor the pull of pieces that behave nicely. It’s so satisfying to pass out the Webern Piano Variations, the D# minor Fugue from WTC Book I, Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne, Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, the Maple Leaf Rag, Clementi’s First Sonatina, and know that the analysis is going to go just the way you think it will. That’s why Beethoven’s First Sonata is in every theory book: not that it’s his most impressive piece, but it exquisitely fits the textbook definition of sonata form you’re about to give them, and convinces them you know what you’re talking about. How inconvenient that K. 545 C-major Mozart Sonata is, with its recap starting in the subdominant! It’s cute and everyone knows it, but you can’t use it until you’ve taught ten other sonatas and throw it in as a wierd exception. Otherwise the students look at you funny.
Every theory teacher, I feel sure, collects over the years a repertoire of pieces for analysis guaranteed not to make him look stupid in class. But if the teacher always looks so smart, doesn’t the music start to look stupid? I have to use those pieces, because sometimes you have to make a specific point in a circumscribed amount of time, but I consciously resist limiting myself to them. I have some pieces I analyze – the bitonal Saudades de Brazil of Darius Milhaud, a symphony (Second) by Martinu, Liszt’s Sposalizio, that just don’t behave well. I give them William Caplin’s rules for the sonata, distilled from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and then analyze – Dussek!, who never read Caplin’s book. Every other year I wade a group of students into “Emerson” from the Concord Sonata and we try to figure out what the hell Ives had in mind, with perennially sparse results. I have learned to savor that stupid feeling of not being able to explain a piece fully, and not being able to justify its existence any better than pointing out that I like it. Sometimes I bring in pieces I’ve never analyzed, with no idea what we’ll find, and we just start rummaging around. I even teach an entire course that way, my Advanced Analysis Seminar, in which we spend all semester on three works I’ve never analyzed, chosen specifically because I don’t understand how they work. Once we got lost in the Stravinsky Piano Concerto, practically my favorite piece of his, and thought we’d never get out.
Of course, there are repercussions. The students form the dangerous idea that not all music is nice and neat and compact and explainable. They gather that spontaneous inspiration, subjective taste, and irrational will are part of the composer’s arsenal. Of course, discipline, rigor, structure, and foresight are too, but why skew the weight so far in favor of one set of values over the other? Why parade Apollo onstage, and bind and gag Dionysius in the dressing room? Let us admit, at the risk of sacrificing some of our unquestioned authority, that the academic canon of Music Acceptable for Analysis, the music we put forward as The Best Mankind Has to Offer, is actually The Music that Makes Us Look Smart, because it follows the rules we’ve been taught to explicate. Then we can play in class whatever music we most love, and if it works out neatly on paper, or if it doesn’t, those are both lessons. “Let us try for once not to be right” – Tristan Tzara. And maybe young composers – rather than either slavishly follow our directives or guiltily break away from us – will learn that the proportion between freedom and order is one every artist has to work out for himself.
[I’m going – gasp! – offline for a couple of days, and will print your comments when I return. I gotta stop staring at this screen.]