Rooted in the Noble Past
Posted 09/24/2017 04:00PM

Eric Wen“It seems uncanny that music has the power to touch us so deeply,” says Professor Eric Wen ’70, musicologist and teacher of music theory and music analysis at such prestigious New York City institutions as Juilliard and the Graduate Center (CUNY), and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Wen is one of a select few musicologists leading the charge to keep music theory and analysis at the forefront of university-level music education, ensuring the legacy of the great classical tradition of high-cultural Western music.

Eric has dedicated his life to musicology, the academic study of music, which is divided into history and theory. History includes not just the composers’ lives and works but also the history of how the works have been performed throughout the years. Theory is the study of the notes, including harmony, counterpoint, and ear training, all of which Eric feels are essential to those learning to compose music. He also is an expert on music analysis, which focuses on the logic found in a piece of music and how it works as an entity. This depth of knowledge places Eric firmly in the middle of a recent debate among those in music academia: how important is music theory to the study of music? 

“There is a trend today to regard ‘classical music’ as overly specialized and somewhat elitist,” he says. “This is reflected in the move away from the Western classical canon. This change seems to be endemic among academia as a whole.” Eric uses Harvard’s recent overhaul of its music curriculum, which has eliminated the music theory requirement, as an example. “I would hate to think that the amazing music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms will slowly become less relevant than, and replaced by, pop and world music. It’s not that I have anything against other kinds of music, but I do feel that the flourishing of great music from the classical tradition is so profoundly vital, and needs to be preserved for the good of humanity!”

Eric wrote a book that is a partial response to the marginalization of classical music. Structurally Sound (Dover, 2017) discusses seven works dating from 1650 to 1900, including pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. “Contextualized within the long history of music, not to mention the wide diversity of cultural traditions around the world, this focus may seem conspicuously narrow,” Eric explains. “But I wanted to show that the Austro-German Classical tradition from which these seven pieces stem represents one of the noblest achievements in humankind.”

Eric feels that in this age of narrowly present-minded “political correctness,” we tend to view all artistic endeavors as equal in value, and the reverence for classics, such as paintings of the Italian Renaissance or 17th-century Dutch masters, as elitist. Eric even attended a conference lecture that equated the artistic merit of the “Beach Boys” with Beethoven. “I’m not saying that this or that composer is ‘better’ than another,” he says, “and I believe that everyone is entitled to prefer one genre of music to another. Nevertheless, not to acknowledge that a symphony by Mozart or a painting by Rembrandt involves more craftsmanship than a riff in a pop song or graffiti art seems misguided to me. What I wanted to show in writing Structurally Sound is how remarkable some pieces of Western art music are, and how they represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved in musical art.”

Eric feels there are many valuable lessons to be learned from classical music, not least the amount of concentration required to experience a musical piece. “I believe that one of the reasons why classical music is less popular now is due to our expectation of instant access and gratification,” he says. Pop songs are 3-4 minutes; a symphonic movement by Beethoven is around ten minutes.

That said, music is still music—and is, as Eric says, “perhaps the most enigmatic of all the arts.” He breaks it down simply: “It comprises a sequence of sounds – formulated as distinct pitches and organized in different units of time—that can communicate the most intense and complex emotions.”

Eric explains: “In literature, words have distinct meanings, and a writer uses them to communicate a wide variety of ideas and depict real or imagined situations. In the visual arts, a painter or sculptor uses colors and shapes to portray events and people with striking realism or to convey an abstract impression. But music makes no reference to the external world; pitches that we call C-sharp or A-sharp have no intrinsic meaning by themselves. Yet when a composer puts such notes together, they can elicit powerful emotional responses.”

Eric feels that music can affect an amateur music lover as profoundly as it does a seasoned professional musician. “For those of us who are responsive to sounds, music offers a meaningful experience that enriches our lives. As it turns out, many people who are deeply passionate about music cannot read musical notation, let alone have any idea how a piece is put together. Since one can experience and appreciate music fully without knowing anything about it, why analyze it? Music analysis sets out to explore how music works. Although it may not increase our enjoyment or love of music, it aims to bring us closer to understanding the remarkable language of pitches organized in time, and helps explain its uncanny but irresistible effect on us.”

Eric began studying the violin as a child and decided fairly early not to pursue a career in performance. He continued to study privately, including theory with renowned Schenkerian analyst Carl Schachter, while attending Columbia University as an English major. He received his master’s degree in music theory from Yale University and soon after was awarded a research fellowship at Cambridge University. He ended up living in London for nearly 20 years, keeping busy with various roles including editor of The Strad and The Musical Times, as well as director and executive producer at Biddulph Recordings. He also taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the University of London, and the Royal Academy of Music. He also performed with a French chamber group, L’ensemble Arpeggione, for several years in the late 1970s. His wife is English and two of his three children were born during his years in the UK.

Now living in New York, Eric also serves as principal editor of violin music for Carl Fischer Music Publishers. His writings on analytical and theoretical issues in music have been published in a variety of academic journals and essay collections.

Eric credits his experience at TASIS with planting the seed for an international life. “It was the most wonderful introduction to Europe when I was 15 years old. Because of my experience at TASIS, I became aware of European culture and how different that was from what I experienced in America. Of course, that was nearly half a century ago, and the differences between the US and Europe are much less now than then.” And as cultures continue to amalgamate and the noise of the digital world increases, we look to people like Eric Wen to help keep our knowledge rooted in what is noble that came before us.

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