A recent New York Times article by Daniel J. Wakin (February 12, 2008) outlines a semester-long curriculum at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the top conservatories in the country. The idea is that for an entire term, everyone is going to be playing, studying, and otherwise exposed to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95. Large ensemble transcriptions, chamber groups, analytical lectures, academic classes: everyone does Beethoven.
I’m certainly smiling, and probably a lot of others also: nothing better! Beethoven immersion! The Talmudic aspect particularly appeals to me: take a tiny excerpt of the holy wrtitings, say a line or two, and work it over and study it from every angle. In this case, it is a single work from The Repertoire, a work with (obviously) a tremendous amount to teach, and the whole population of Curtis sets about being each other’s study partners for the term and working the piece over. This is the sort of thing that cannot be put in a curricular plan or course cataloge but has the potential to change lives more profoundly than The History Sequence or The Theory Sequence could ever do.
Incidentally, I’m sure that other places do things like this; Curtis isn’t the first. We did something like it, unofficially, in Autumn of 2006. (How could the Times have missed it? Their 24-hour feed from the Front Range must have failed.) That semester, the opera department put on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, without question one of the greatest operas of all time. So: two casts of singers, plus all the orchestral players involved of course. The understudies each got a concert performance of an aria from the opera with the chamber (second) orchestra, so there was a decent payoff for all their work. I assembled and taught a graduate seminar on the opera, dealing with the original Beaumarchais play and the trilogy of plays it comes from, Paisiello’s earlier Barber of Seville (which Mozart knew and drew upon; that is the first of the trilogy while Figaro is the second), Mozart’s musical language, syntax, dramatic approach, and so on. How better to spend a semester than living the Marriage of Figaro?
At UCSB, in Spring quarter 1980, Prof. Alejandro E. Planchart decided to put on the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, utilizing probably two-thirds of the department (I got to play harpsichord continuo for the solo numbers and a couple of other pieces). So I rehearsed with those singers all year, oncfe a week: Nigra sum, Pulchra es, Duo seraphim, Audi coelum. Unbearably beautiful. By the time of the concert, the entire department, basically, was at a fever pitch, having lived inside one of Monteverdi’s absolute greatest masterpieces—probably the—for that length of time. Purely and simply, any musician that participated came out different, utterly transformed, with rearranged DNA. This Curtis story gave me a warm feeling because of those memories: I know what students and faculty alike are going to get from that experience, and the fact that they’re sharing it as a large community enriches it exponentially.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder what that anti-canon wing of cultural criticism makes of all this. How much more galling, for people who object to received texts and sacralization and handed-down wisdom and limited perspectives and so on to be confronted with a curriculum of one revered piece by the most revered of composers? I can imagine some difficulties myself, were the piece a Wagner opera or something. Maybe you just can’t abide Beethoven, or Mozart, or Monteverdi. (If that’s the case, God have mercy on you…but I digress.)
The Times article is a puff piece, not a resistant reading of the pedagogical concept, so certain questions didn’t get asked. The fact is that the experience of intense, extended, serious study of anything in this kind of detail will change the students forever, whether they’re string players or not. Studying anything with the combination of exaltation, reverence, and doggedness to work the Truth out of it will change the student, whether the revelations remain or not, or even if the commitment to the piece remains. Anyone who has played a memorized piano recital knows this experience; a tremendous amount ot time is spent making the works a part of one’s brain tissue, and some are kept and some…are not. Though it will always feel like it is about the music, about the Monteverdi Verspers or Beethoven Op. 95, it is about the study itself, the commitment, the…damn it, the love of the Law. The students will emerge knowing how to study anything in this kind of depth, to reflect on it, to think deeply about it without constantly being hampered by an approaching performance date, the necessity of covering more ground, making compromises because of real-world practicalities and so on. That is the most important lesson of all: they’re not just learning the fingerings and bowings; they will be doing higher learning for an entire year—a rare enough opportunity, I would guess, for hotshot performers of the Curtis stripe who are always gigging, always in demand.
Fortune smiles upon all of them. That is what a School of Music is for: that kind of aggregate of students and faculty who can simply make extraordinary things happen in a collaborative way. It can be done many other places, of course. We do that here, as I said; indeed, plans are currently afoot for the forthcoming Haydn year—string quartets, symphonies, piano sonatas. Can’t wait!