Composition Class: Books and Listening List

 I’m teaching the composition class at Westminster Choir College for the first time this fall. The course includes all of the first-semester composition majors as well as non-majors interested in composing (or, perhaps, needing an elective).

We’re going to be using three books as texts during the term:

-                   Modal Counterpoint, in the Style of the Sixteenth Century, Ernst Krenek (Boosey).

-                   The Study of Fugue, Alfred Mann (Dover).

-                   A Basic Course in Music Composition, Ralph Shapey (Presser).

Each of these is a small primer on one of the big, central topics in the craft of composition: Sixteenth century counterpoint, fugue, and twentieth century composition approaches. I like that two of them are exercise-heavy – the Krenek and Shapey – while one includes a more historiographical approach, with plenty of examples from the literature. Each author strikes a different tone: Krenek is thorough-going, Mann authoritative and Shapey brilliantly creative, if a bit on the cranky side.

None of them are complete discussions of their respective topics. But each provides a tantalizing, instructive introduction. The three are easily portable; making them easy companions for student composers to take along to muse over on the quad, in the library, or off-campus. What’s more, the combined price tag is less than the cost of many textbooks.

Next up: the listening list. I’m very open to thoughts from Sequenza 21 contributors and readers. Which pieces do you think are essential listening and study for first-semester composers? Drop some suggestions in the comments section!

I have a feeling the toughest part of preparing the course will be winnowing this down to a manageable number of pieces!


6 thoughts on “Composition Class: Books and Listening List

  1. 1. Barber, Knoxville Summer: The text will draw them in & the relationship between the text & the music rewards deep, focused study.

    2. Berio, …points on the curve to find…: He wrote the entire (dazzling) piano part first, then used it as a ‘generator’ for the music played by the 23 accompanying instruments, an approach at once viscerally audible & intellectually appealing.

    Nice to see you using the Mann. It’s a terrific book IMO.

  2. I’d strongly recommend using Robert Gauldin’s “A Practical Approach to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint” over the Krenek. We’ve learned a lot about 16th-century practice since Krenek wrote that book in the ’50s…

    I would also add to your book list the Persichetti “Twentieth Century Harmony”. It’s a fun little reference to have, relatively inexpensive, and easy to read (I have a fourteen-year-old composition student who is working his way through it now and loving it). Available here:

  3. As far as a listening/score study list goes for first semester students, I’d send them to: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (both in full score AND piano reduction), Debussy’s La Mer, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

    With those three pieces you can spend a whole semester (if not lifetime) discussing and thinking about what music “means,” the journey from mind to ear to piano to orchestra, form, harmony, orchestration, etc.

  4. Hi there,

    I like the idea of bringing the past more close to us showing invention and procedures that we can relate to contemporary practices. There is for example, a mass by Palestrina that deals with multiples tempo. (prolation) Missa L’homme arme -see the second Kyrie.

    This piece can relate in this way to Ives and Carter pieces dealing with the same ideas.

    best wishes!


  5. I enjoy your rationale behind the text selection. The idea of an intro to composition class is daunting as to the appropriate subject matter to cover in such a small amount of time. I wonder if the Fugue text by Mann might be a bit ambitious for first time composers or those with little experience. Texts that I had found helpful in my early stages of composition and as a lifelong reference include Music Notation (Read) and Instrumentation and Orchestration (Blatter). My belief is that the most essential process of composition is to be able to accurately communicate the ideas of the composer. Best of luck in the Fall!

  6. Alan,

    Thanks for both your posts. I agree with your sentiments re: counterpoint. I like the Gauldin, and Peter Schubert’s book even better, but am trying the Krenek to give the students a more cost-efficient solution. I find that with most counterpoint books, I make up handouts of my own to supplement/correct certain issues.

    The Persichetti is another favorite; since most of my composition students study parts of it with me in private lessons, I’m holding it on reserve. I imagine some of its exercises may end up fashioned into assignments during the term.

    I feel the same way about Nico’s suggestions of the Read and Blatter; both are essential for composition majors. But they’re expensive, and we have an orchestration course that requires purchasing the Blatter (or Adler, depending on the instructor) later on in the program.

    Tom – Points on a Curve is such a fantastic idea for a literature example; I’ll be sure to give you full credit!

    Thanks to all for writing. It’s nice to get such thoughtful comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>