Teaching: ‘A History of the 19th-Century in 100 Musical Works’

Here’s a post on a brand new module I’m delivering this coming term: ‘A History of the Nineteenth Century in 100 Musical Works’. 

I spend lots of my time dissecting ideas of classical canon in music, seeking to expand representation in terms of ethnic diversity and gender, exploring ‘forgotten’ composers, etc (you only have to watch some of @MusicologyOf to see that). 

Musicology has been dissecting the concept of ‘Canon’ for decades, well before the ‘New Musicology’ of the 80s/90s, though many associate it with that era. For the last 5 years, when starting ‘Music History’ classes with students, I focused on giving them tools to critique & expand the canon, for all sorts of good reasons. We focused on how the canon reflects pre-existing power structures, along lines of gender, class, and race. 

But time and again, an issue came up: many students simply did not know the large body of music that was assumed to be the ‘canon’. I was giving them tools to critique a body of knowledge (i.e. familiarity with these pieces) that they didn’t know in the first place (there’s an element of class and privilege that accompanies the fact that only some students in any UG class will already be intricately familiar with the classical canon to start critiquing it straight away, but I won’t go into that here). 

As an attempt to level the playing field, I’m now teaching *more* canon, not less. Here comes the brand new module, starting at the end of this month: ‘A History of the 19th Century in 100 Musical Works’ (based on a course specification by my former colleague, J.P.E. Harper-Scott).

How have these 100 musical works been picked? Take the 3 most commonly used ‘textbooks’ on 19th-C music: Taruskin, Dahlhaus, Samson. By going through these texts and noting which works are mentioned most frequently (and discussed in depth), we reach a list of 100 pieces of music that these authors believe are representative of music in the 19th Century. 

(there are quite a few surprises; in many cases, it didn’t match up to my idea of what the 19th-C ‘canon’ was) Going through the 10 week course, students will listen through highlights from each piece, and I’ll give a lecture that includes c. 5 minutes on each one, just giving an overview, suggestions for listening. For assessment, students plan a concert series, complete with promo video and programme notes. Unsurprisingly, the list of 100 musical works from these 3 books is not diverse in any way (it’s all white men).

Seminar discussion over the 10 weeks is entirely based on why this is the case: through colonialism, gender imbalances, the white racial frame, class prejudice, etc. By the end of the course, the class will have constructed our own complementary list of 100 19th-C works by women and composers from ethnically-diverse backgrounds, as well as having spent c. 20 hours discussing just why the canon is so lacking in diversity. In other words, we are still being critical about the canon, at the same time as students are immersing themselves in the traditional canon. 

The aim with this course is to then be able to move to a far more in-depth critique of canon; up to this point, I’ve been concerned that teaching students to critique something they don’t necessarily know isn’t helpful. I’m excited to see how the module goes, and I’ll post any thoughts/updates on here. P.S. – here’s a Spotify playlist of all 100 works (well, 103 actually). It’s 180+ hours long! open.spotify.com/playlist/6xcJ3…

19th C in 100 worksDanElphick · Playlist · 2488 songs · 23 likeshttps://open.spotify.com/playlist/6xcJ3rCXRFtcwJrbbcuEpS?si=eabcb11ee0e94068

As mentioned above, the module is not my idea, but the result of a significant amount of work by Prof J.P.E. Harper-Scott. I can’t claim any credit for the concept, or for the leg-work of number-crunching to put the 100-works list together. But I have adapted the original course design, and it *is* a joy and an honour to be teaching it for the first time this term, though.

I look forward to teaching it this term – follow my twitter, where I’ll be posting one work per day between now and new year. I’ll update here with thoughts on how the module goes!


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