‘No theory, no sex’: thus introduced Susan McClary her discussion of femmes fatales in Alessandro Stradella’s little-known oratorio San Giovanni Battista. Although she did manage to induce a few nervous laughs among the audience of the Cramb Lecture, her warning to withhold the sauciest aspects of the music before she explained what exactly makes them saucy brought to the forefront some crucial questions which, I dare say, everyone who teaches, speaks or writes about music has faced at one point or another: how much music theory do we or our audience need to know to interpret the meanings behind what we hear? Can music theory be a hindrance rather than a help sometimes , or does it provide us with the best vocabulary possible to articulate our experience of music?
Such questions were indeed very much at the centre of the various events Prof. McClary took part in during her term as Cramb Resident earlier this month. Addressing the students of the School-wide honours course Genders, she remembered her initial engagement with the music of Madonna in the late 1980s, in an attempt at understanding what it was that her students found appealing. Her classes on the subject then formed the basis for a chapter of her ground-breaking and controversial book Feminine endings (1991).
In a subsequent roundtable with staff and research students of the Music subject area, participants discussed with Prof. McClary how music theory can be taught at the undergraduate level in a meaningful way – or, as put by Prof. McClary, without letting students lose sight of the ‘social meanings.’ With increasing numbers of British music departments re-thinking the sort of music theory background they ask of their applicants, this seems indeed to be a crucial time to be asking these questions.