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Horatio Parker
"Successors of Palestrina to Bach"

Lecture notes, Yale University, 1908

Horatio Parker, “Successors of Palestrina to Bach” Horatio Parker, “Successors of Palestrina to Bach”

Universities established schools or departments of music long before they recognized music history as a legitimate specialty. They did offer some instruction in music history, but until surprisingly recently it was usually provided by faculty whose expertise lay mainly in other areas, such as composition or performance. At Yale, for example, Horatio Parker (professor of theory and composition from 1894, and dean from 1904) offered the sole course in music history for a quarter century. After Parker’s death in 1919, the music history curriculum was expanded to five courses, but they were taught by faculty such as Bruce Simonds, a pianist and composer. Not until 1938 did Yale finally hire a formally trained musicologist: Leo Schrade.

The Horatio Parker Papers include two sets of lectures from Parker’s music history course, and from these we have selected a lecture on early Baroque music delivered in 1908. It consists chiefly of nuggets of information extracted from Ambros, Fétis, and other authors, mixed with Parker’s personal opinions. For example, he writes, “Monteverdi, who is spoken of at some length in [Hubert] Parry’s chapter on the rise of secular music, was a bold thinker. In dramatic music he was at least a century ahead of his time. To my mind his greatest mistake was made not in his operatic writing but in his church music in which he tried to reconcile two things which can never go together. The more severe kinds of music are the only ones fit for use in church. All musicians know that the only dissonances allowed in strict counterpoint are those of transition and suspension. The introduction of dissonances by direct percussion and without preparation is said to have destroyed the school of polyphonic writers. Unprepared discords are very beautiful and necessary in our music but their introduction in polyphonic counterpoint is contrary to the nature of things. This, I believe, was Monteverdi’s mistake and for this reason his church music compares unfavorably with that of his less progressive and perhaps less gifted contemporaries or predecessors.”

In a sense, it is unfortunate that we should present Parker’s lecture as an example of what was wrong with music history pedagogy, for his once sterling reputation has already suffered unjustly: in recent decades, most of Parker’s music has been forgotten, and his name is remembered mainly because of his failure to grasp the unorthodox genius of his most famous pupil, Charles Ives. Parker (1863–1919) was actually one of the most distinguished American composers of his era, and also one of the founding fathers of the Yale School of Music.

The canon Parker describes on the first page of this lecture is by the erudite Roman composer and theorist Pier Francesco Valentini (ca. 1570–1654).


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