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The Ivory Tower: Classical Music In Academia

Music for the upper crust on this edition of Ether Game.

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Photo: Pixabay

Knowledge is power on this very academic episode of Ether Game!

The Ether Game Brain Trust explores the venn diagram between music and academia on this episode. Many composers were professors, and others had strained relationships with “The Ivory Tower.” Put on your academic regalia and check out our playlist below for our exploration!

  • Antonio Vivaldi: Antonio Vivaldi’s first official teaching post was at the Pio Ospedale Della Pietà in Venice. This was one of four institutions in Venice dedicated to the care of orphaned or abandoned children. In one respect, the institution was a kind of hybrid between a music conservatory and an orphanage. Orphaned boys learned a craft or trade and left the Pieta for apprenticeships when they came of age, while girls were given intense musical instruction. Of particular interest was the Pietà’s orchestra, consisting of all girls whom had become virtuoso performers under Vivaldi’s teaching. Vivaldi had to be elected to his post every year by the board of governors, and proceeded to have an “on and off” relationship with his employer. He held his post from September 1703 to February 1709, when the majority voted against retaining him. In September 1711 he was re-elected to his old post, which he retained until March 1716.

  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Rimsky-Korsakov taught orchestration and instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1871 until his death in 1908, directing over 250 students during his long career. Before he got the job however, he taught himself how to play the instruments of the orchestra and read widely on acoustics. He meant to apply this knowledge to a book on orchestration, but the work was only completed posthumously in 1912 by Maximilian Steinberg. Titled Principles of Orchestration, the book is considered to be the first to take the scientific properties of sound into consideration. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration habits are notorious. As a member of the nationalistic “Mighty Five,” he was prone to “improve” the orchestrations of his friends’ works. Most notably, Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godonov. While this may have helped catapult Mussorgsky into posthumous fame, today it is often performed with the composer’s original orchestration.

  • Johannes Brahms, Academic Festival Overture: When the University of Breslau informed Johannes Brahms in 1880 that they wished to give him an honorary doctoral degree, they also informed him that he should write a symphony for the occasion. Brahms instead presented them a “boisterous potpourri of student songs à la Franz von Suppé,” his Academic Festival Overture. The humorous work ruffled the feathers of a few of the stodgier academics at Breslau. The overture includes quotations of a banned revolutionary tune, a comic Freshmen hazing ditty, and an over-the-top arrangement of academic tune Gaudeamus igitur. Even though Brahms refused to write that symphony to the University of Breslau, it’s still better than what he did to Cambridge University three years earlier. He refused their offer of an honorary doctorate altogether.

  • Frederic Chopin, Etudes, Op. 10It was the academics and intelligentsia in Warsaw that first discovered the talent of a young Frederic Chopin. They were ones who had him perform at their salons, and championed his early career. He studied at the Warsaw Conservatory when he was still in his teens, but it soon became clear that the academic institution had little to offer him. The final blow came in 1829, when the education ministry in Poland denied Chopin funds to study abroad. At that point, Chopin abandoned education and began to work as a professional pianist. It’s interesting then that one of his first post-academic pieces was a set of études or “studies”—basically student exercises. He dedicated his Opus 10 Études to Franz Liszt, and these etudes pushed the limits of piano technique. Perhaps this was Chopin’s way of thumbing his nose at formal education, writing his own educational pieces worthy of his talent.

  • Guillaume Dufay, Nuper Rosarum FloresIn the Middle ages, education was provided by the Catholic church, with clergymen serving as teachers. The motet was the musical genre of choice among the educated class, often because a motet required academic knowledge to understand and perform. Dufay’s Nuper Rosarum Flores is a good example of this, written for the dedication of the Cathedral of Florence. The Cathedral was begun in the late 1200s, and was not completed until 1436.  For the consecration of this architectural masterpiece, Dufay was commissioned to compose a motet to be performed during the Cathedral’s inaugural Mass. The motet itself has an architectural structure, and for many years scholars subscribed to a theory which suggested that the proportions of the composition mirrored the spatial qualities of the Cathedral. Historian Craig Wright recently debunked this theory, positing instead that Dufay’s motet is actually modeled on the measurements of King Solomon’s Temple, given in the Bible.

  • Paul Hindemith: Urged by friends to leave Europe at the start of World War II, Paul Hindemith reluctantly set out for the United States, intending to stay only a short time.  Around the same time, he turned his attention to becoming an educator, and he received invitations to teach from such prestigious schools as Cornell University and the State University of New York.  Finally, he was invited to give a series of lectures at Yale, where he was offered a visiting professorship, a post he gladly accepted.  The university wanted him to help with their continuing reform of musical studies, and allowed him a great deal of freedom to design his own curriculum.  He began writing several textbooks, only one of which was completed.  His composition classes were thought to be the best in the country at the time, although he refused to acknowledge that any of his students had talent, with the exception of composer Lukas Foss.

  • Arnold Schoenberg: Between 1903 and 1925, composers Arnold Schoenberg, and his informal students Anton Webern and Alban Berg were united in a common goal: compose new, daring music in a way that only Austrians were capable of doing. This group of composers eventually became known as the “Second Viennese School,” heirs to the so-called “First Viennese School” of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven—well, that was the rumor, at least. As the de facto leader of this so-called “school” Schoenberg developed his distinctive musical style. In 1935, Schoenberg took on a more formal educational role when he emigrated to the United States. He moved to the west coast, and taught at both USC and UCLA in Southern California. There, he taught the next generation of American students, like John Cage and Lou Harrison.

  • Robert Fuchs: Austrian composer Robert Fuchs was one of those musicians who had such an influence without ever becoming a household name. Fuchs was born in Austria in 1847, and was known mostly for his chamber music and serenades. He was regarded as an incredibly tuneful composer, praised by contemporaries like Brahms. But Fuchs never promoted his own work, preferring instead to live the quiet life of a professor. He taught composition and theory at the Vienna Conservatory, working there at a time when many famed composers were honing their craft. His list of pupils is a veritable who’s who of prominent European composers around the turn of the 20th century, including Gustav Mahler, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, George Enescu, Jean Sibelius, Hugo Wolf, and Alexander von Zemlinsky.

And just for fun…

  • The Police, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”: Before Sting was the lead singer of The Police, he was a school teacher named Gordon Sumner. Sting taught English at a Catholic School in northeast England in the mid 1970s, moonlighting as a jazz musician. It was his experience as a teacher that inspired his 1980 hit “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”. The song is about an illicit and illegal affair between a young student and older teacher. Now, that never actually happened to Sting firsthand when he was in the classroom. Rather he took the schoolgirl crushes he experienced as a teacher, combined it with some plot points from the Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita, and voila, you have a (somewhat creepy) hit song. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1980 and even earned them a Grammy award.

Music Heard On This Episode

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