Canonic Curricula

Jonathan Bellman

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!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Canonic Curricula

  1. Mark says:

    I think it’s great, and I’m not a canon dude at all. I think it’s great because of the, how you say it, “Talmudic,” aspect. Beethoven and Mozart don’t mean much to me. My brow is irrevocably low. Even though I can’t bring myself to drop the needle on a Mozart record, the idea of a whole community of musicians focusing intensely on the same thing, even if it is Beethoven, is very appealing.

  2. D. Robinson says:

    Yes (as an ‘anti-canon dude’), what would happen if a semester intensive like this occurred with, a great work by Boulez or Lachenmann, or perhaps a great work by a lesser-known great composer such as Aldo Clementi or Salvatore Sciarrino? The entire school, making and playing arrangements, hearing lectures on the same work from a variety of perspectives?

  3. Jonathan says:

    I love the philosophical dissonance this brings up. Imagine getting an entire School or Department of Music to agree enough on a less-canonic Great Composer (Boulez, Dallapiccola, Schnittke etc.) to devote this kind of time and attention to him or her. Aswsume that getting sufficient buy-in from the faculty, even the oldest and moldiest of us, is not a problem. Does not that institutional recognition then make the chosen composer Canonical, a Received and Approved Wisdom of the kind that people uncomfortable with the idea of canon itself would bridle against?

  4. Eric says:

    Yes, cool idea. However, I’d have them study the SQ in Bb with the orginal 6th movement (Grosse Fugue). I love the canon!

  5. David Cavlovic says:

    Yes, but could they do the same with Terry Riley’s In C, or Stockhausen’s Stimmung?

  6. Sator Arepo says:

    Although the thrust of my comment has been stated above, perhaps I can add something.
    I love Beethoven. I especially love the late quartets. They are awesome music. They deserve study.
    Especially now, when undergrads (if the students at Curtis are anything like the kids at Texas [they’re probably not]) don’t KNOW the canon.
    Most of them are band kids who wouldn’t know the theme from the Pastoral if you served it to them multiple-choice style.
    However, presumably that will be addressed in a history class. Whatever. My point is that Beethoven, while valuable, does not need any help. The canon, arguably, is Balanced on Beethoven’s Fulcrum.
    No one is saying we shouldn’t study Beethoven. Well, they are. But they’re misguided.
    However, I agree with the commenters above that perhaps, with the power of apotheosis that we (-ish) have, perhaps we can canonize someone new?
    Dallapicolla, Schnittke, Boulez, Lachenmann, Stockhausen, Riley, and Sciarrino are all lovely choices. I’d personally throw some more Americans in. Cowell? Ruggles? Riegger? So much near-forgotten good music.

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