[Smt-talk] Written record of Boulanger pedagogy?

David Kopp dako at bu.edu
Fri Dec 17 22:56:31 PST 2010

Dear all,


Perhaps I can add something here, having gone through the same undergraduate
program in my time that Dmitri and Jonathan did in theirs, and teaching Paul
Vidal’s basses for many years for that program. I also spent time in
Fontainebleau and Paris at the end of Mlle. Boulanger’s life, studying with
her and her circle.


- Some of Mlle. Boulanger’s teaching materials derived from her training at
the Paris Conservatoire. This includes the Vidal basses as well as an
old-school text she gave her students, the Traité d’harmonie by Théodore
Dubois, an early 20th-century Conservatoire product in line with its
predecessors, written by one of its directors and master harmony teachers.
Boulanger’s own harmony course was more modern; I may still have some


- While I agree with Jonathan that the Vidal basses do not foster awareness
of rules or norms of harmonic progression in our sense, they do depend on
clearly articulated rules of chord progression of another traditional kind.
Most of these rules apply to short progressions of two or occasionally more
chords, taking into consideration what precedes and follows. Progression
types are identified by two elements: chord types (e.g. rt. pos., 1st inv.,
2nd inv., dom. 7th, dim. 7th) and specific interval and direction of bass
progression (e.g. semitone, whole tone, leap). Vidal’s exercises present
each of these progression types repeatedly, in numerous changing contexts,
in order for the student to be prepared for any situation (what Jonathan
refers to as unpredictability). For each progression type one learns
preferred voice leading patterns for the possible soprano choices along with
a ranking of preferred and prohibited doublings, always in four parts. Lines
resulting from the better soprano choices can sometimes become rote
solutions, although they may not always be musically preferable as melodies.
Scale degree of the bass may be considered, and is important in the case of
specific exceptions to doublings, since most progression types occur in
particular places in the key. In the Americanized version at least, bass
progressions may be associated with specific harmonic progressions as a
secondary consideration - e.g. 6/3 descending to 5/3 by semitone commonly
indicates IV6 - V in minor. There are also stock patterns for tricky
extended progressions such as stepwise series of sixth chords. Exercises are
always to be realized at the keyboard, not written. It seems, to me, that
there might be an echo of aspects of partimento practice in Vidal’s method.


The number of progression types and voice leading and doubling rules, along
with the constant awareness of context, can be daunting, although the end
result is a practice of greater subtlety (and, to a detractor, rigidity,
fussiness, and lack of analytic awareness) than what the typical North
American harmony textbook recommends, particularly regarding triadic
relations, which are the heart of the method. There are also copious basses
containing seventh and ninth chords, suspensions, etc., but the presence of
dissonance and additional tones restricts the voice leading and doubling
possibilities, so that context and figuring out the chords becomes the prime
focus. Chromaticism in Vidal can be stylistcally ecletic, Fauré-like.
Overall, the approach mirrors Dubois somewhat. As keyboard exercises
primarily, I don’t think that the basses would reliably yield the kind of
insight re harmonic norms that Dmitri is seeking.


David Kopp

Boston University


-----Original Message-----
From: smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org
[mailto:smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of JONATHAN
Sent: Thursday, 16 December 2010 22:40
To: Dmitri Tymoczko
Cc: SMT Talk
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Written record of Boulanger pedagogy?


Hello, Dmitri, and everyone,


Among the previously unpublished essays and lectures of Elliott Carter that
I edited for the Rochester collection some years ago was his reminiscence of
his three years under Boulanger's tutelage.  It struck me at the time as odd
that, despite the vast number of students she had over the years, I'd run
across hardly any other published accounts by former pupils of the
instruction they received.  Carter's account is one of the most detailed --
but, as anyone knows who has ever read his essay, he has very little to say
about the "nitty-gritty" of harmonic instruction or anything else.  I'd be
intrigued, to say the least, to learn that someone had made an attempt to
set down the rules of harmony a la Boulanger.  I can also think of several
reasons why no such attempt might ever have been made, by anyone; but that's
a different conversation.


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



Jonathan Bernard

University of Washington



On Fri, 10 Dec 2010, Dmitri Tymoczko wrote:


> Hi Everybody,


> I'm looking for written materials that record the nitty-gritty of harmony

> taught by Nadia Boulanger and associates: for instance, which tonal chord 

> progressions were common and which were rare, according to Boulanger?

> tonal sequences were most common?


> There is a set of figured basses by Vidal, which she used in teaching,
that I 

> guess provide some indirect evidence here.  But I'm wondering if there's 

> anything more direct?  Ideally I'm looking for something like "Nadia 

> Boulanger's ideas about music, as written by Kostka and Payne."


> The reason is that (1) I would like to do some quantitative evaluation of

> ideas in this tradition, based on my own analytical data, and (2) that

> of what I've seen in Vidal interacts interestingly with my own ideas about

> these issues.


> Thanks,

> DT


> Dmitri Tymoczko

> Associate Professor of Music

> 310 Woolworth Center

> Princeton, NJ 08544-1007

> (609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)

> http://music.princeton.edu/~dmitri


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