Even a cursory glance at the way in which composition has been taught during the twentieth century reveals that there are almost as many approaches as there have been teachers. Indeed, such a diversity of approaches (in some cases diametrically opposed) is encountered regularly in music departments across the UK, reinforcing the commonly-held view that composition cannot be ‘taught’ as such, but only ‘demonstrated’. Every composer who imparts knowledge on the subject to a student will therefore bring to the table his or her own set of views and ideas, methods and techniques, opinions and (to an extent) ideologies.
In each case there is a common element, however; namely, that – with only very few exceptions – composition is almost always taught by composers for composers. From this basic premise one can apply a basic distinction between two approaches: ‘free’ and ‘strict.’ Composers who adopt the free approach will see their role more as facilitators or mediators than teachers in the strict sense. They will seek to motivate and inspire students, encouraging them to ‘think outside the box’. Issues of craftsmanship and technique are still important but nevertheless remain secondary to more important concerns, such as sparking and inspiring creative ideas. In such situations, a lesson may revolve around a pupil bringing examples of his or her work to class; the teacher’s task is then to comment on how best to develop and improve the given work.
Composers adopting a stricter approach will place more emphasis on discipline and method, in the belief that a grasp of the solid foundations governing musical technique is, in the first place, essential. Thus, the inner mechanisms of important works from the early twentieth century canon onwards – such as atonal harmony in Berg, twelve-note technique in Webern, the rhythmic language in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or texture in Debussy – will be revealed, and the student encouraged to adopt and develop similar techniques in their own efforts. In such circumstances, a lesson will revolve around setting specific tasks for students to complete for the following lesson, working through each exercise in class. In certain cases, such as Nadia Boulanger’s strict approach, twentieth century styles and techniques were even considered superfluous: technique meant a thorough knowledge of traditional harmonic practices and thorough familiarisation with species counterpoint of the Renaissance and Baroque traditions.
This chapter draws on comments taken from Skempton’s own thoughts on teaching composition, in addition to reflections from some of his former pupils, in order to reflect on (and measure) his influence and impact in this area. The final section connects Skempton’s teaching with his own creative output by focusing on several techniques employed in his Eirenicon series for solo piano.