The Importance of License in the Pedogogy of Model Composition, Past and Present

Matthew Bailey-Shea

In part three of Le Istitutioni Harmoniche (1558), Zarlino, after citing a wide variety of contrapuntal rules, makes the following statement: The observation of the above rules may so restrict a composer that he is unable to write beautiful and graceful lines or to write his parts in fugue or consequence as he would wish. He may for this reason occasionally deviate from the rules. Such license is conceded to poets, who at times depart from metric rules by using one sound for another or a long syllable in place of a short one, and vice versa. Musicians may also write certain things in exception to the rules; but the privilege must not be abused, just as the poet may not often take such licenses.The word "license" has a subtle but fascinating role in the history of music theory. If you were to pick at random any compositional treatise from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, chances are that the term license would make only rare and scattered appearances within the text. Yet if you were to scan a wide collection of treatises, especially counterpoint manuals from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it would soon become clear that the term is consistently invoked with an understated but crucial rhetorical function: it loosens the bonds of musical rules and restrictions, while at the same time reinforcing the authority of tradition. The concept of "license," in other words, has a brilliant - if somewhat paradoxical - dual role. Though it recognizes the importance of freedom and creativity, its very existence depends upon an unshakable system of law. This corresponds, of course, to the role of various public licenses - marriage licenses, fishing licenses, etc. - which allow a certain freedom, but, because they define the limits of public action, ultimately reinforce the power of governmental authority. The role of license in artistic domains is essentially the same. Jacqueline Miller, for instance, defines the concept of poetic license in Renaissance and Medieval contexts in terms of a balance between "two systems of authority:"the autonomous author with license (or freedom) in the poetic domain, exempt from external control and conventional rules, and the external power that bestows the licenses and hence authorizes the poet's actions.In a similar vein, "musical" license in the pedagogy of theory and composition acknowledges the freedom of the student without undermining the basic aesthetic values of the theorist/author. The specific way that the term is used in theoretical treatises differs from one author to another and from one historical period to another, but it always serves a similar purpose, a purpose which is inherently pedagogical in nature.The goal of this paper, then, is to provide a brief account of the role of license in the history of theory followed by a consideration of its potential utility in the contemporary theory classroom.