The Music Tripos is an incredibly diverse course to study at Cambridge- far from limiting focus to solely composition, performance or historical study, it allows you to develop your main interest whilst still studying a (sometimes extremely!) broad range of topics.
The course is 3 years, like most: Year 1 is Part IA, Year 2 is Part IB, and Year 3 Part II. In your first year, you don’t have much choice- this can seem daunting, but in retrospect you realise that it makes sure you have a really solid grounding in important skills such as analysis, historical study and tonal composition. Though occasionally you feel like some aspects are not exactly the most riveting, again, it thoroughly prepares you for study at a higher level of things you’ve actually chosen to do!
The first year comprises 6 papers, all of which have some exam element.
The one paper you do get some choice in is ’Music and Musicology’- this involves compulsory study of musicological practice through the years, and then a choice between performance, composition and an extended essay. This can be great, as it allows you to focus on what you enjoy the most!
’Tonal Skills’ is harmony and counterpoint- writing 16th century counterpoint, fugal expositions, sections of string quartets, and piano accompaniment for 19th century songs- this is a mix of a normal 3-hour exam and a 28-hour ’takeaway paper’. You also have to do aural and keyboard skills as part of this paper. Without a doubt this can be the driest part of the course at times, but don’t be put off- it always gets easier!
The analysis paper focuses on the period 1770-1830, including one set work (this year Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, book II) and one unseen for the exam. You tend to focus on Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn and Mozart quite strongly, and especially chamber music- but this paper is all about studying the music itself in depth, learning a range on analytical techniques, rather than the historical context. I’ve always found this genuinely rewarding (if at times frustrating- but that’s Cambridge!) as you can really get your teeth into a work and essentially break it apart.
2 history papers cover the periods 800-1600 and 1750-1914 respectively. This is where you get into social and cultural context a lot more- looking at specific pieces of music and composers as well as broad trends, stylistic changes. It is unashamedly broad! Studying essentially 1000 years of music, as well as all the historical stuff that goes with it, is at once completely awesome and utterly terrifying. You cross over into other subject areas a fair bit- when studying Wagner it’s hard not to end up reading about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, whilst looking at Renaissance music will involve considering literature, art and important socio-political events as well. For me this has been one of the best bits- I once ended up reading Descartes for an essay on Britten; bizarre (but great).
Your supervision and lecture load is quite large, but not horrific- as you cover such a wide variety of areas, the workload can be especially intense for a first-year course. So, for example, a typical week might include a lecture probably every day, sometimes two in a day- that’s a much as it gets for lectures. Aural and keyboard classes are normally weekly. Supervisions are organised both by the faculty and your Director of Studies (DoS), so some are weekly, some fortnightly. The number of different skills you cover also means you can have 2 (or even 3, when unlucky!) essays to do a week, and the reading for them, plus a shorter piece of analysis and harmony/counterpoint exercises. Importantly, it gets much more manageable after first year! You have more choice, you take fewer papers, and there’s no aural or keyboard. By third year all the choice is yours.
Studying Music at Peterhouse can be very rewarding- there are no music fellows here, which means your DoS is Jeremy Thurlow at Robinson. Jeremy is really wonderful, extremely friendly and helpful, and you’ll get to know the other music students at Robinson well, as at least in first year you’ll have quite a few supervisions there. Peterhouse normally takes one music student a year, which is good in some ways as it means you can get perhaps more attention than at a college where there are almost 20 in total! It also means you’ll end being very involved with the musical life at college, and have lots of freedom to put on concerts, start groups etc.!
However, having so few musos and no music fellows can be a bit of a downside to Peterhouse- you’re not quite as involved with Cambridge musical life, and it can be a bit disheartening not having people very nearby with which to share your studying etc. Nonetheless, this should only encourage you to get really actively involved with the music scene elsewhere!
My advice for anyone thinking about applying to study Music at Peterhouse is to think about what you enjoy most about studying music, and develop a true passion for it. Broaden your listening horizons as much as possible. The course at Cambridge is certainly very academic compared to other universities- but there is such an enormous range of performance opportunities, from amateur groups for fun to more serious, high-standard orchestras and choirs, that this hardly matters.
Advice for upcoming freshers would be this: listen to as much music as you can! With scores if possible. Getting a general idea of a broad range of musical styles, from early polyphony to contemporary music (not that you’d be expected to be even nearly familiar with everything!) is a great way of just getting a picture in your mind. Listening to Palestrina, Bach fugues and Schubert lieder with scores will be very useful, as you’ll have to compose in those styles. Find a period, or some composers, that you’re interested in, and read around them- style, historical context etc. Hopefully you’ll get a reading list at some point- if not, Richard Taruskin’s mammoth series is a good place to start- pick a couple of interesting looking chapters.
And most importantly, forget everything you ever thought you knew about sonata form.
Jane Forner, 2011-2014