Traditional rebels

Why music students are resisting the new teaching regime

The evolution of Western classical music has long been taught in schools and universities: students study the sacred choral works of the Renaissance period and the intricate contrapuntal works of the Baroque era, followed by the Classical period’s elegant, diatonic scores and the Romantic age’s dramatic, emotion-driven orchestral scores and performances. The twentieth century marked a shift to more experimental works, embracing various movements that shunned harmonic progression.

Composition taught in higher academia now centres on these ideals of contemporary classical music: originality, experimentation and atonality. Students who do not conform are harshly marked. The tradition of harmonically tonal works is dismissed and the pressure to be “original” is oppressive.

Many students are rebelling against this regime. Instead, they crave a sense of order and a desire to be taught. Their frustration is embodied in the Phoenix Music Society at Cambridge University, set up in 2017 by the composer and academic Oliver Rudland, along with his students. The society encourages the composition and performance of modern, authentic, tuneful works in opposition to atonal exploration.

The Phoenix Music Society works to create pieces with a melodic hook, a reoccurring, original and memorable theme. They are often influenced by film sound tracks and traditional elements of Western music. The idea is to encourage young composers to draw inspiration from well-loved pieces in order to create new compositions as a stepping-stone towards developing their individual style.

The response from the classical music scene at Cambridge has not been wholly supportive. The Phoenix Music Society does not have any departmental funding and posters promoting its events are removed from notice boards.

The society has set up a new website so that lovers of traditional music can support its work in the longer term:

Recordings of the society’s previous concerts can be found at:

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