Tuesday, October 11, 2005
I’m about ready to give my first midterm as an academic, and I thought a look back on the experience of teaching first-semester music theory at Brooklyn College wouldn’t be inappropriate.
I absolutely love it. I also teach third-semester ear-training and have two private composition students. But the theory class is the course I prepare for the most, think about the most, and look forward to the most. It’s a class of twenty-six students, and the level of ability varies considerably. Some can barely identify intervals, others are counterpoint naturals to whom I’ve given a little extra work. My office hours are a steady stream of slightly frazzled students earnestly trying to wrap their minds around the succession of intervals rule and dissonance treatment. Lectures are a grand ole time during which we try to uncrack cantus firmi and connect tonic and dominant triads in smooth, irrefutable ways. I get to play the piano, sometimes we “sing,” and they laugh at my jokes. Sure sometimes the grading is a pain in the butt, and the other textbook we’re using, “Harmony in Context” by Miguel Roig-Francoli, is sometimes infuriating; but to see poor students working hard and gradually getting a little better is undeniably rewarding.
But what I really wanted to blog about was Palestrina. I had the fortune of being ushered into Palestrina style by the late great David Lewin, so I’ve always valued 16th century polyphony as an important skill. But revisiting the species this semester, under the guidance of Lewin’s rules (derived from Knud Jeppesen’s), has engendered in me a love and admiration for Palestrina’s music I’ve never had before.
I’ve voraciously re-read many sections from Jeppesen’s “Counterpoint” and slammed my way through “The Palestrina Style and the Dissoance” while riding the subway. I’ve combed my way through the Pope Marcellus Mass with awe and excitement: the elegance and fluidity with which Palestrina handles six polyphonic lines – never exceeding, from bass to soprano, the space of two-octaves-and-a-fifth, the serene motion of his melodic energy, the refinement of his rhythm, the naturalness with which he glides through dissonance – all this takes my breath away. Listening to Palestrina intensely as I have recently has made me love other music – be it Beethoven or Ligeti – more, because that music seems cruder, bolder, more human, more expressive. Bach is bloodier for me now than he ever has been; Beethoven is more characterful, Sibelius more thrilling. The relief into which Palestrina throws other composers is alone worth studying his style: he is the perfect circle other geniuses alter, bend, twist, and shatter.
If I were redesigning the course, I’d spend it all on 16th century counterpoint. As a final project, I’d make all the students write three-part imitative compositions to make them get all those triads Palestrina is so masterful at weaving into his lines. Then, second semester, we’d move to Bach and begin working on four-part chorale harmonizations.
Hopefully I’ll get to do it next year.