Music Theory as listening tool

21 March 2023

The Music Theory Department organizes several lectures at Residentie Orkest concerts every year. The lectures are part of the curriculum of music theory students and are given by teachers from the department. In February, Aart Strootman gave a lecture at the concert that included Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, Macmillan's Larghetto, and a Dutch premiere of Kalevi Aho's Double Concerto. He takes us through the topic of his lecture, and the way music theory can contribute to listening to and understanding music.

Addition to the curriculum
'For the students of the Music Theory Department, these lectures are very valuable because they bridge the gap between what is taught in lectures and what sounds in practice.
An hour after they have been in my class or the class of one of my colleagues, they listen to the Residentie Orkest playing the pieces we have just talked about. This one-to-one relationship with practice is extremely valuable. In a concert like this, hopefully, one hears the theory behind the pieces right away.

Particularly in contemporary music, this can be very interesting. In Aho's Double Concerto, for example, you can hear the bassoon in a completely different context than we are used to. He gets a lot of new colours out of the instruments, but if you take a closer look at the notes, you'll see that he's relying on a music-theoretical basis that the third-year students already know very well. This insight removes the potentially challenging and threatening glaze of contemporary music, because it shows that you can gain control over what exactly happens within the notes quite quickly.

It is a great opportunity that students can go to a lecture and then immediately go to a concert by a professional orchestra. That is what is so special about this place, that you can do all that in one building. This is an initiative that puts all the right ingredients together and suddenly you realize the value of a place like Amare.'

Letters and notes
'In my talk, I looked for clues to help you listen to the concert program.
I was supposed to give a talk as if I were giving a lesson to third-year music theory students, but I tried to find something that could reach listeners of all levels.
Something you can really see in Shostakovich is his use of the monogram, his initials, he puts them in his music, just like Bach did. If you can recognize the letters DSCH, in notes translated as d, e-flat, c, b (in German the H is used for a B), then you will have some fun with the Tenth Symphony, because the further you get into the piece, the more you will hear the monogram, if you got the monogram well in your ears, you will notice that it is actually a big structural element.

In my opinion, the monogram is a good way of speaking to both the advanced music theory student and the average music lover.
You can put it into the context of music theory and go into the depths of it, discussing what exactly is in those four notes, you can touch upon very advanced music theory in that way. But once you have the sound of the monogram in your ears, you can begin to explore both harmony and melody, and eventually even form.'

Listening within a context
'So the monogram was meant to be a kind of a listening tool, but I also found it interesting to take into account al little bit of the history of the piece.

One of the theory subjects I am currently teaching at the Royal Conservatoire is Music History. In the first year we dive into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Of course it is a bit strange to talk about the history of the present, but it is very interesting to look for tendencies. The second year is really a historical panorama; we start with the first pots with holes, which we believe to be flutes, and go up to the 1900s.

Shostakovich is often read in the context of Stalin and the Soviet Union. In particular, Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony is read in this framework because it is very likely that he wrote the piece around the time of Stalin's death. I find it remarkable that the piece is almost exclusively projected onto Stalin, and if you assume that then it will influence the way you listen to it.
There are music theorists who claim that the piece is all about Stalin, but others dispute that. This discussion between authoritative theorists and historians goes beyond what you usually read in program notes, so I discussed it in my lecture.

In this way, music theory can make you aware that you listen in a certain way, which is conditioned. We are trained to think about Shostakovich in a certain way, but as a consequence we listen to Shostakovich in a certain way. I think theory can be very valuable in finding an alternative to that.’