[Smt-talk] Written record of Boulanger pedagogy?

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Fri Dec 17 15:28:43 PST 2010

It strikes me that Jonathan's description of the purpose (or the lack of 
purpose) of Vidal's exercises exactly matches what I'd say (here, not in 
France) of the traditional exercises of the Paris Conservatoire and of 
the French way of teaching harmony in general. Harmony properly speaking 
in not taken in account, in so far as there is no attempt made to 
distinguish good progressions from poor or bad ones. The only concern is 
to have a correct voice leading, especially in avoiding parallel perfect 

French "harmony", since Catel's treatise of 1801, probably, is nothing 
more than a kind of naïve tonal counterpoint, without any real concern 
for harmonic progressions or (which boils down to the same) for 
tonality. And, as Jonathan seems to suggest, the figures become mere 
labels for the chords, to be translated at first sight into chords 
totally decontextualized. "Making sense" is utterly foreign to this 

I am afraid to have to say that this, even today, remains the way 
harmony is taught not only in the French conservatoires (after all, 
conservatoires are the places where tradition is conserved), but also in 
universities, and even, /horresco referens/, in the Sorbonne.

This all would tend to indicate that Boulanger's harmonic pedagogy, if 
it was based on these Vidal basses, may not have been very different 
from the French traditional one (i.e. that of the Conservatoire National 
Supérieur de Paris), with its odd figures includig +6, +4, etc., or 
barred 5, etc.

But let me know: who is the Vidal mentioned here? Is there a publication 
of his basses? I never heard of these exercises around here. They cannot 
be worse than some I have had to do during my studies, but I know 
nothing of them. And as one of my former students is planning a study of 
this extremely odd French tradition, I'd very much like to know.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Le 17/12/2010 04:39, JONATHAN W BERNARD a écrit :
> Hello, Dmitri, and everyone,
> [...]
> One caution I'd like to offer here concerns the Vidal basses.  Having spent untold hours of my freshman year in college plugging through page after page of these figured-bass exercises, under the tutelage myself of a Boulanger disciple, I have the distinct impression that Vidal designed these quite deliberately not to follow any known rules of harmonic progression.  The whole point seemed to be to make progression unpredictable, forcing the student to learn to read the figures mechanically and accurately, to get them right at first sight without any contextual clues (such as what would "make sense" harmonically in a given situation).  They are entirely artificial exercises: no upper parts are provided, as would of course be present for real continuo playing.  Other veterans/victims of the Vidal regimen may disagree with this assessment; I'd love to hear from them either way.
> Jonathan Bernard
> University of Washington
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