Later this week great minds in the world of music theory
will gather in Boston for a yearly ritual that delights, confounds, amuses, and
befuddles its participants. Before convening I thought I would share with you a
true tale of scholarship that should sound familiar to many of you and will
perplex, or at least challenge, the rest of our august body.
A couple of years ago I gave myself a very special 60th
birthday day present––I finally sat down and attempted to plumb the mysteries
of the Tristan Prelude after having taught bits and pieces of it to my advanced
majors for decades. After two months of digging I came up with a lead sheet
reduction that identifies the underlying chord progression that is often
obfuscated by chromatic voice leading. After ruminating about the myriad
details of its construction I wrote a 10,000-word essay detailing my findings.
Perhaps I was flattering myself, but I thought I had some interesting tidbits
to share with my fellow theorists. In an attempt to reach out to those who might
be intrigued by my discoveries, I gleaned from an extensive Internet search the
names of 120 university scholars who specialize in the theory of 19th-century
music. I sent each of these people a copy of the article and sat back to await
the response. It may come as no surprise to some of you that, out of 120
recipients, I received three written responses (from very major theorists) that
indicated that they had read the article and had given it serious
consideration. I did receive eight letters or emails from theorists who thanked
me for the gift and promised to get to it when time permitted. I never heard
from them again. One recipient was confused as to why I would send a Wagner
article to someone who specialized in Chopin. That response took my breath
I share this with you at this time because I never fail to
be astounded at the parochialism of so many in our profession. Are we so
segmented that our curiosity does not extend beyond the confines of our
intellectual cubicle? Are we not musicians first and theorists second?
A couple of months ago I offered to send any SMT list reader
a free email copy of my book chapter about the Seven Levels of Harmonic Usage.
I can report to you that, out of 1240 list members, I got inquiries from
exactly 10 people. Apparently, less than one percent of the list was tempted to
see what this old codger had come up with. When we invest great amounts of time
and energy creating intellectual gifts for our colleagues, do we realize how
small an audience we may actually reach? Should articles that will be read by
only a handful of peers be the basis of judgments about tenure and promotion?
That might be something to chew on during your Boston breakfast.