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  Road Signs

What’s a Music Department Doing in a Place Like This?

By Carol Lieberman, Acting Chair, Music Department

When people learn that I teach music at the College of the Holy Cross they often ask, "What place could a music department have in a liberal arts college?" Good question. In Europe, music performance and scholarship are considered separate disciplines and are housed in different institutions: the conservatory for performance, and the university  for historical musicology. 

But in the United States liberal arts colleges, music performance and scholarship coexist happily under one roof and in one department. Thus, our scholars may perform, and our performers may delve into original manuscript sources in the search for their most "historically-informed" interpretations. Music students at Holy Cross, performers, composers and budding historians alike, take advantage of these intellectual and artistic explorations, and can be found sitting in the music library late at night consulting Beethoven's sketches for his string quartets, or examining the various completed scorings of Mozart's unfinished Requiem. If they come out with anything after their four years here, it is the knowledge that historical context is everything. Not only do they "know" Stravinsky's Rite of Spring of 1913, they can also place that great work in the historical continuum--they know why Paris was such an important musical center before the First World War; what movements were breaking ground in visual arts, dance, literature and architecture; how great men and women influenced an entire generation's ideas about the world in which they lived. 

In this academic atmosphere of creative investigation the "early music movement" has also made its mark on campuses across the country. In fact, interest in early music has grown to the extent that it now appears to embrace music from the Middle Ages to the first part of our own century.  Clearly, we are witnessing a new approach to the discipline, a mode of inquiry, which is not confined to a particular period. 

Composition has also been influenced by the academy. Reacting to the "modernism" they began to perceive as constraining, many composers looked to music of the past and to music of other cultures to reinvigorate their work. At the same time, a flowering of Baroque and Classical period instrument performance came into vogue. Performers using these "authentic" instruments were striving to recreate music of the past as it was originally performed, and were collaborating with musicologists to reinterpret 17th, 18th and 19th century aesthetic and stylistic treatises. Composers also incorporated the now "exotic" timbres of 17th  and 18th century Western instruments as well as tonal systems and instruments of other cultures. In this way, performers, musicologists, ethnomusicologists and composers engaged in exciting dialogues and discussions.

This is not just an academic phenomenon, however. By the 1950s, early music had become standard fare in symphonic and chamber music concerts.  The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini insisted on a more faithful reading of the score than many of his colleagues, and contributed substantially to the creation of a climate more receptive to stylistic purists. A similar attitude was voiced by Igor Stravinsky (who perhaps inadvertently, took issue with Felix Mendelssohn who revived and conducted J.S. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion) when he wrote in 1947: 

"The Saint Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach is written for a chamber-music ensemble. Its first performance in Bach's lifetime was perfectly realized by a total force of thirty-four musicians, including soloists and chorus...And nevertheless in our day one does not hesitate to present the work, in complete disregard of the composer's wishes, with hundreds of performers, sometimes almost a thousand. This lack of understanding of the interpreter's obligations, (italics mine) this arrogant pride in numbers, this concupiscence of the many, betrays a lack of musical education." 1

According to Stravinsky, if one truly seeks to follow the composer's wishes, one must try to re-create the actual sound that the composer might have heard. The assumption is that, through education, we really can re-create music of the past as it was originally conceived. Although this notion is today considered somewhat naive, we have nonetheless witnessed an explosion in scholarship investigating such topics as French and Italian ornamentation, dance tempos, sketch studies, and stylistic practices that were never precisely notated in their era. Just twenty-five years ago, this kind of research would probably not have been undertaken by undergraduates; now our students are increasingly aware of and interested in these questions.  It should be mentioned that all this musical ferment owes a great deal to the invention of the photocopy machine and the compact disc. An enormous body of unpublished music has been made available in recent years--quickly, cheaply, and even legally--through photocopy. Similarly, the compact disc has enabled us to re-master old recordings that had been consigned to oblivion. The latest technology has therefore brought us closer to the past. 

Today, "new music" may incorporate jazz, pop, rock, non-Western music, computer generated and synthesized sound and 18th century forms.  This eclectic "Postmodern" approach to composition has seen some early music performing groups commission composers to write for harpsichord, recorder, viola da gamba, Baroque violin, flute, oboe and other "old" instruments. Juxtaposing "period" and electronic "instruments",  combining Western popular music with ancient non-Western chant, creating multi-media collaborations that offer countless possibilities for new artistic expression -- all point to the vitality which a college music department in a liberal arts institution can help foster, and in which students can be active participants. 

To return to the question, "What place could a music department have in a liberal arts college?"  The answer is, at Holy Cross, a very exciting and innovative one, where learning and teaching by both students and faculty take place every day. 


1. Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl, Vintage Books, New York,  p. 135. 


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