Can the History of Theory Be Decentered? Part I – Prequel: Five Classics

Alexander Rehding


Until fairly recently, Harvard’s History of Music Theory exam was rather free-wheeling.[1] It allowed our graduate students to focus on any period or topic in the history of theory. But my colleagues and I eventually came to see this model as unwieldy. An overhaul was needed. To make the exam more manageable for all sides, we decided that the questions should be drawn from a sequence of five central music theorists from across the ages.[2]

In general, our qualifying exam tries to strike a balance between teaching the things that “belong in the music theorist’s toolkit” (i.e. are important for the job market) and letting students explore their personal interests. While keeping requirements to a minimum, we aim to fill this toolkit with skills and research areas that future employers tend to expect. By being canonical in some areas, the exam structure opened up greater freedom to explore in others.

The “Five Classics” (to go full-on Confucian[3] for a moment) of our HoT exam were one of those canonical areas. It covers a range of different periods, topics, and approaches that would give students a basis for further exploration. The current list includes:

  1. Boethius
  2. Zarlino
  3. Rameau
  4. Helmholtz
  5. Schoenberg

So far so good. Gradually, though, it dawned on us that now we have to somehow teach all these figures. Taking into account other required courses, we realized that we could only afford to dedicate one semester to HoT. And this semester would need to cover all fifteen hundred years between Boethius and Schoenberg.

Every challenge is an opportunity. After some experiments trying to do these five theorists justice in one semester-long syllabus, I realized that none of my schemes were working. There was always too much to know—too much musical repertoire, too many texts, too much intellectual history, too much cultural background, too much historiography. In no way could all this be squeezed into one semester. I was about to give up when I finally hit on a solution that I thought would work: instead of starting with the profound alienness of Boethius, it would make much more sense to start our story from the end. Why not begin with Schoenberg, whose musical world is much closer to most of our students, rather than with the war-ravaged Late Antiquity of Boethius?

By working in reverse chronological order, starting with the trope of the “end of tonality,” we could capitalize on the knowledge of music history that many students would bring to the course. This way we could start by delving into the trajectories of musical evolution that were so commonly invoked in the late nineteenth century, and that were retrofitted[4] so as to explain why Schoenberg’s atonality was either a historical necessity, or a terrible aberration that led to the irrecoverable loss of a once-flowering tradition. These discussions would then allow us to introduce various historiographic topics, and would lead, almost imperceptibly, to the next topic on our list: the issue of tonality, and the challenges that Helmholtz’s scientific example offered to traditional music theory.

It did not take long to realize that the actual problem I was facing was less about the material itself, but about the ways in which a coherent story could be told in one semester. (At the other extreme, I had taught seminars before that focused exclusively on a single historical figure, such as Rameau or Riemann, or on a selection of topics within a given century.) Going backwards in time was not really a problem as long as we thought of it as a succession of topics rather than a succession of people. While the exam structure still focused on the works of five central figures, there was no problem if the seminar told the story of theoretical concepts. And, in the service of one coherent red thread, we could definitely do worse than to choose the old story of pitch relations, talking about changing notions of key concepts such as consonance, scales, counterpoint, harmony, and tonality. A reverse chronological order would, at least, ensure a different perspective that does not replicate the well-worn tropes of progressive complexity leading toward the present age. By moving backward in time, we would have to confront—in what I was hoping would be a striking realization—that the numerical structuralism of the Pythagorean tradition has never fully disappeared, but merely faded into the background because of our reliance on equal temperament. So complex is the numerical reality of our music that we have taken a collective shrug and directed our attention to other issues.

To tell the full story, I ended up modifying the syllabus in one major regard: We moved backward to Rameau, and then inserted a hard break. The second (shorter) half of the semester began with Boethius and his adaptation of Greek modes, and moved forward to Zarlino. This had the advantage of avoiding the complexity of introducing the concept of modes within a contrapuntal framework. It had the additional benefit that we could close our overview with further historiographic questions, circling back to the issue of tonality, into whose service Zarlino had been pressed by the likes of later commentators such as Riemann and Matthew Shirlaw. By putting Zarlino at the end we could close the circle of the semester, and connect the broad historiographic questions that we had raised at the beginning of our journey.

I was pretty happy with the structure of the semester. Sure, it was not perfect. There was no Formenlehre, no Affektenlehre, no rhythmic theory. There was no Koch, no Kirnberger, no Fux, no Mersenne, no Gaffurius, no Marchetto, no Guido, no [insert your favorite theorist here]. As with any syllabus, mine had holes. Yet it offered cohesion and reasonable coverage. Moreover, the warped chronology did a pretty good job of reframing canonical figures in a way that would nudge them (and the students) out of their comfort zones.

[…] Continuation: II. Five Different Classics […]


[1] This blogpost would not have been possible without the many invaluable conversations and exchanges that preceded and accompanied its writing. Thanks go particularly to Will Cheng, Phil Ewell, Roger Grant, Drew Hicks, Lester Hu, Nathan Martin, Carmel Raz, Siavash Sabetrohani, and Danny Walden, as well as the students in my current Music 220: History of Music Theory.

[2] A tip of the hat goes to Henry Klumpenhouwer here, who first suggested a five-book structure to me.

[3] Thanks go to Lester Hu for pointing out the irony that a sixth Confucian classic, now lost, was a volume on music.

[4] Historians have come up with the useful term “backshadowing” here. See Michael Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

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