Music History Survey Survey

Brent Reidy

The Second Summer Session is in full swing here at IU and I'm back in the classroom. I'm teaching a section of the same music history survey I taught in the spring. The class is standard history fare: Death of Bach to "Death of Classical Music as We Know It"™ and entirely too fast.

That much is alright. I guess we are all used to the idea of cramming nearly three centuries into a 15-week semester. What I am not used to, however, is the summer schedule. Teaching the class is now even more of a short ride in a fast machine as our usual fifteen weeks are compressed into eight. Eek.

When one accounts for days lost to test taking, administrative matters, etc., those eight weeks really feel like seven. And seven weeks just doesn't feel like enough. Last week we taught: The New Eighteenth-Century Style, Comic Opera, Opera Reform, the Symphonies of Sammartini, Stamitz and Haydn, and also Haydn's string quartets and what audiences expected out of their chamber music back in the day.

I know that we'll get through it all. I think, with some luck and hard work, my students could walk away with a fairly good sense of what happened in the last 250+ years of music history. But I can't help feel that seven weeks of learning will make long-term retention of most of the details impossible.

This is only my first year contending with teaching "The Survey." It has felt a bit strange, partly because I have never been on the receiving end of such a class. My "survey" class in college was anything but survey. My professor  taught the course in an unusual way. The class had less than ten students and He took advantage of our quasi-seminar size. Instead of pushing through the repertory at breakneck speed, we spent an awful lot of time with a few pieces.

We spent our first few sessions on Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. That's it. We read articles by Jander and others on the (possible) Orfeo in the Andante Con Moto. We learned about audience expectations and why those first few measures of the first movement would have sounded rather unusual back then.

I really liked the concerto before I took the class. After those first few lectures, however, I was struck with a feeling of never having actually listened to the work before. The piece sounded different once I learned the context. (And so I ended up here in musicology.)

But for all the revelation we did miss a lot. Our prof told us that we would need to make up some work on our own if we intended to go on to graduate school. And make up work I did.

I don't know which is better. I'm sure that my eight-week survey this summer is something many of you out there have all had to teach in the past–which is why I titled this blog post "Music History Survey Survey." I've just rambled about my limited experience with survey teaching and taking, but how about you? I'm interested to hear some of the more unusual stories of survey teaching from our readers.

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7 Responses to Music History Survey Survey

  1. Jonathan says:

    Neither solution is good, Brent–but there is no good solution: too much music, too much history, not enough time. (And if you took more time, it would probably be “too much time on history in a music degree.”) It’s important to have both experiences–the survey and the ruminative–and Beethoven #4 is as good a candidate in the repertoire for the kind of attention your prof gave it. I taught the history survey for ten years (the entire year of it) and, while there was never enough time for anything, my experience with universities and human beings suggests that people actually do NOT go back, for the most part, and make up for what they missed, so I lean toward keeping the traditional survey.
    It’s an imperfect system, like all systems. One does one’s best in whichever situation one finds oneself.

  2. Ralph Locke says:

    Thanks, Brent, for bringing up the eternal question of how to present music history to undergrads. My own experience, here at the Eastman School, confirms Jonathan’s basic principles: better to do a true survey, however hasty it needs to be, than to do selected topics in depth.
    I feel strongly that musicians (if we’re talking about music majors, as I assume we are) need to be exposed to the major genres, composers, styles, and so on. Perhaps, back in the 1950s, teachers could reliably expect that a young pianist knew Mozart string quintets (from playing four-hand arrangements, or from recordings). That kind of broad familiarity with the repertory of Western art music can certainly not be assumed today.
    Still, one can always find ways to extend the discussion into broader issues as one goes along. A teacher, in a survey course, could (to use Brent’s example) teach the slow movement of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto and could hand out copies of Owen Jander’s interpretation and, I’d add, of Edward T. Cone’s brilliant alternate scenario, which rephrases the same musical points in less explicitly programmatic language. This could be done in a few minutes, during a session on Beethoven or on the Classic-era concerto.
    And the teacher could pick up on that issue–how music relates to extramusical images and narratives–later: for example, when reaching concert overtures of Berlioz and Mendelssohn, or character pieces by Schumann and Chopin, or the symphonic poems of Liszt and Smetana.
    Of course, this takes a lot of careful threading, and some students will be more responsive than others to making these long-distance connections. (I’m being a bit humorous: I don’t think of what I told them three weeks earlier as being that long ago, but, of course, they do have a lot else on their minds, such as recitals to play….)

  3. I’m pretty sure I’m related to Owen Jander. . .
    I’ve never taught one of these courses, and I haven’t taken a survey which tried to pack as much into so little time, but I do have one thought: don’t worry about teaching specific composers and focus on teaching the movements. The goal for the students should be that by the end of the class they can listen to music they’ve never heard before and tell you when and where it’s from. You can’t possibly do justice to any music if you have to cover so much ground, so focus on providing a basic conceptual framework into which the students can place future study. I don’t remember much detail from my 10 week Dartmouth term on the Classical period, but it’s okay. I remember that it went from approximately CPE Bach to Beethoven, that it marked a move from the Doctrine of Affections to more personal emotive styles, that it happened during a period of social upheaval when the old feudal system was dying and a merchant class and a middle class were developing. I remember some stuff about sonata form, about the Mannheim Rocket, about the changes in available forces for the orchestra (the addition of horns and drums), the evolution of keyboard instruments. That’s the sort of important stuff that you _can_ teach in a survey and that will be useful later on. I know we analyzed some Scarlatti sonatas, but I don’t remember the content of the analysis and it doesn’t matter that I don’t. Had we needed to compress the Classical period into two weeks we could have excised a lot of stuff I didn’t retain and kept the stuff that I still value knowing about.

  4. Eric says:

    I am teaching the year-long music history sequence for the first time this fall. Needless to say, per Jonathan’s comments on an unrelated blog several months past, I am preparing all of my lectures this summer so I can be Mr. Show Biz once I get in front of the class in August.
    Although I am not a formally educated musicologist, I have always been fascinated by music history and kept abreast of the discourse over the years. However, given my nihilistic tendencies and postmodern weltanschauung wherein all kinds and types of music are equal, I am struggling for a good “reason” that students today should learn in such great detail the repertoire and history of European music.

  5. Review Stew says:

    I’m agreeing with pretty much everything said above…
    I was fortunate enough to take a couple of undergrad survey courses from Richard Crocker. Almost 2 decades later, what amazes me the most was not the medieval class (predictably great) but the way he covered the 19th century (unpredictably great).
    Later on I used his History of Musical Style book to prepare for comps, and I was struck again by how facile he is at finding the big ideas and how they sweep through broad swaths of history. Being able to take a few steps back and look at the big picture first has always been the hard part for me – the rich detail comes easily.
    I’ve never taught this kind of survey course myself, but I think I’d start out looking at 1000 years of the tradition, then pick up some of the strands that are most intriguing in that 250-year span (obviously, personal preference will be a huge factor), and start constructing timelines around them.
    An analogy: teaching a history of science course for the same period, one might talk about trends in biology, chemistry, and physics more or less separately – combining them when appropriate, making sure to talk about big paradigm shifts that affected all of the scientific world, sometimes referencing “schools” or geographic areas, sometimes not.
    It’s impossible to cover every important topic, trend, or composer – it’s not even really possible to cover a “top 10” of them. No matter what you do, you’ll hear someone say later “I can’t believe you taught that survey course and didn’t mention X.” If “X” is important to that student, they will learn about it in time.

  6. I taught the Graduate Music History Review a few years back (2001 – 2002), and I agree with the others; realistically, in a class like that, you have to point out trends and large-scale ideas. As cool as it would have been to really get inside Palestrina or Weber or Reich, you just gotta plow ahead chronologically.
    I’m hoping someday we can change that, but I’m not sure how yet.
    On a side note, when I taught Music Appreciation one summer I did it by genres instead of straight chronological (though there was one week of general chronological overview at the beginning). We did large ensemble works, chamber works, opera/vocal/choral, and folk/popular forms. Someday I hope to try it over an actual semester.

  7. PMG says:

    I think there was a discussion on the AMS list awhile back about how some people have tried to do survey courses backward–start with the present, and work your way back in time. I would love to try that someday.
    When I was an undergrad at an institution that specialized in ethno, we once had a four week history of western music class. It actually worked better than you might think; the lack of detail meant that it was much easier to make connections and pick up some broader narratives that often get lost in the shuffle.
    And finally, one other thing I would love to do is teach a broad survey class and skip Beethoven. Think how much more you could cover.

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