Robert Wason

Robert Wason's picture
Visiting Professor

After thirty years of full-time teaching of music theory at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester (NY), specializing most notably in history of theory, I am now Professor Emeritus––i.e., able to teach when I want to, and to devote most of my professional time to research projects.  I’m also affiliated with Eastman’s Department of Jazz and Contemporary Media, having studied, taught and written about the music of Bill Evans over the past twenty years.

I began my career as a jazz pianist during the early1960s in Bridgeport, when some of the greatest jazz players were active a short drive away in NYC.  My obsession with jazz sent me to contemporary classical music, and to the music of the classically trained Bill Evans in particular, who had played in Milton Babbitt’s “All Set” in the first concert of Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream.”  Even at this early point in my career I was particularly interested in music on the borders between tonality and atonality, and between jazz and classical styles.  I went on to study music composition and piano at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford (BMus ’67; MMus ’69), and joined the Hartt Faculty as Instructor in Theory and Composition upon graduation.  As my teaching career developed, I also taught at Trinity College (Hartford), Clark University, the University of North Texas, and later on, was guest professor at the University of Basel (Switzerland), the University of British Columbia (Vancouver), and SUNY Buffalo.

Teaching music theory was an important part of my duties at Hartt, and I found myself turning to the relatively new Journal of Music Theory.  Ultimately, class preparation sent me in a very different direction in the the mid 1970s: to the up-and-coming discipline of music theory at Yale (MPhil ’78; Ph.D. ’81).   My interest in the tonality/atonality divide drew me naturally to dissertation research in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, which in turn drew me to a great cultural center of the time, Vienna, and to its University and Hochschule für Musik (Fulbright Scholar, 1979-80).  Over the years I’ve continued research in Europe courtesy of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, NEH, the Paul Sacher Stiftung, and German Academic Exchange (DAAD), working on history of theory, music of Webern, and songs from turn-of-the-(20th)-century Munich.

During my time in Vienna I built the foundation for my Viennese Harmonic Theory from Albrechtsberger to Schenker and Schoenberg (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985; reprint, Rochester: UR Press, 1995).  My major project at present is a continuation of this work––one that I’ve spearheaded and am writing with Matthew Brown and William Drabkin that I call “A companion to Heinrich Schenker’s Theory of Harmony.”  In the absence of a scholarly translation of Schenker’s Harmonielehre (Vienna, 1906), this book will present the ancillary documents related to the book, together with interpretive essays. Even when a scholarly translation eventually appears, the context presented in our book will remain essential. It’s scheduled for publication in the “Eastman Studies in Music” series by the University of Rochester Press.

In the 1990s, I returned to jazz, prompted by student request for a course on Bill Evans. Another of my current projects is a CD recorded with my jazz trio, now in the mixing stage.  I’ve also been working on a book on the music of Bill Evans over the years, on hold at the moment, due to the Schenker project.

I’ve been active as a vocal accompanist as well, performing songs of Anton Webern with my colleague, Elizabeth Marvin, and Munich songs with soprano Valerie Errante.  (The Munich project led to concerts of both ‘popular’ and ‘art’ songs by the Rochester composer, Alec Wilder [1909-1980], available on the Errante/Wason CD Songs of Alec Wilder [Albany Records; Troy 404].)  I’m now in the process of sorting and editing (minimally) the recordings of many live performances of Munich songs that Valerie and I did over a ten-year span.  During a research trip to Munich, we photocopied more than 1200 songs, all published, but essentially unknown outside the Munich area (and long forgotten and out of print).  Ever since I began my work on the history of theory, I’ve been particularly interested in “chromatic harmony.”  The “Munich School” project is a way of studying the late tonal language in a controlled corpus of the music itself.  Recently, German colleagues have also become interested in the Munich songs, and I delivered an (invited) paper last year on the project at a conference devoted to the Munich School held in Mainz. Within the past three years I have given papers on these songs in Würzburg and Amsterdam as well. 

I look forward to the spring term at Yale, and hope that some of my varied experiences may be of interest, and my advice perhaps useful to students in the Yale Music Department.

Music Theory
Graduate faculty