Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Well, hey there! It’s been a hot minute since my last post, hasn’t it? The past few months have been quite the whirlwind of activity. The biggest news is that I recently graduated with my PhD in musicology from UC Santa Barbara. (Woohoo!! *Cue smattering of confetti*) As exciting as this achievement was, the first half of this year was insanely busy. One can correctly assume that keeping this blog active (at least marginally) was near the bottom of my “to-do” list as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation. Though I am still in “recovery” mode and not quite ready to launch back into blogging just yet, I wanted to take a bit of time to write some thoughts on the dissertation process while it is still relatively fresh in my mind.

My pride and joy. And by that, I mean the “PHinisheD” novelty mug.

The project was a ton of work, but honestly, I enjoyed it overall. My topic—the relationship between European émigrés and three Los Angeles orchestras in the 1930s and 40s—was fascinating and provided some great material to work with. The research process was smooth, and writing it was fairly manageable as a whole. Would I want to do it a second time? No, probably not, but I don’t regret it.

Below are five big “lessons” I learned during the twenty-two-month journey, with a few miscellaneous items thrown in for good measure. Whether you are prepping for or are in the midst of writing a dissertation, hopefully these will be of some help. And if you are not “dissertating,” some of these things could apply to other big projects or, hey, just life in general!

Before we begin, though, I should also mention that these past two years, I was privileged enough to be in a living situation where I wasn’t required to pay rent or work full-time to make ends meet. This is a huge part of why I was able to focus on the project, finish in a decent amount of time, and encounter relatively few obstacles along the way. I acknowledge that privilege and am well aware that not everyone may be in the same situation.

Without further ado, here are five things that helped me to “stop worrying and love the dissertation”:

(Oh, and if you’d like to read the thing, it is available to download for free on ProQuest. Just click here! You are also welcome to contact me directly; I am more than happy to send along a PDF.)

1. Don’t stress out about the proposal—it’s a roadmap, not a final product

One thing I initially struggled to come to terms with was the proposal. This 20-or-so-page document is something one writes at the beginning of the dissertation process that outlines your project’s thesis, methodologies, chapters, early bibliography, and other fun stuff (such as how long you think it’ll take to actually finish the thing). Typically, you’re supposed to complete the proposal before you begin the project in earnest. This means that everything in the document is hypothetical; details will more than likely change along the way.

Same goes for your proposal

At first, this seemed like an annoying task. I felt like I knew very little about where the project would end up, let alone where to start. (Any other Enneagram type Sixes out there who take comfort in plans and schedules?) However, once I began to write down what I did know—and the possible findings and conclusions that might arise from that—to my surprise, the document materialized fairly quickly. Obviously, certain aspects of the project absolutely did change along the way. In fact, my entire thesis and approach shifted barely two months later once I dove into the actual research, but the proposal was still a useful starting point and helped me gather my thoughts early on. So, don’t worry about this aspect too much. It’s a roadmap, not a final product.

Continue reading “Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*”

Brahms via Schoenberg: The Piano Quartet in G minor

Despite his inseparable association as the creator of twelve-tone composition, Arnold Schoenberg held a deep affinity for music of the past. His early pieces, such as Guerre-Lieder and Verklärte Nacht, reflect an extension of the sweeping, late-Romantic idioms of Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler. Even many of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone works keep one foot rooted in an earlier era. His 1923 Suite for Piano, for instance, bases each of its movements after Baroque dance forms, similar to models used by J.S. Bach. Schoenberg’s admiration of his musical forebears can be observed further in his small, but respectable output of arrangements, transcriptions, and adaptations of other composers’ works. The results are remarkably varied, ranging from a grand orchestral transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major to a delightful chamber arrangement of the German Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”).

Perhaps one of Schoenberg’s best-known arrangements is his orchestral transcription of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, which was created at the request of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Otto Klemperer. Klemperer had been planning a Brahms cycle for the orchestra’s 1937–38 season and believed that an orchestral version of the quartet would provide an appropriate capstone for the project, with Schoenberg as the ideal candidate to transcribe the work. Klemperer and Schoenberg had known each other in Vienna, and both had just recently moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, part of the growing community of artists, writers, and musicians who settled in Southern California after fleeing the threat of Nazi Germany.

Schoenberg was thrilled with Klemperer’s request. The music of Brahms held a special place in his heart, and this specific work was particularly beloved, as Schoenberg had played the quartet many times in his youth as both a violist and cellist. In a 1939 letter to the music critic Alfred Frankenstein, Schoenberg further outlined his intentions for taking up the project: 

“Here [are] a few remarks about the ‘Brahms.’ 

My reasons: 

1. I like this piece. 

2. It is seldom played.

3. It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

My intentions:  

1. To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today. 

2. To watch carefully all these laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate [any of those] which are only known to musicians educated in his environment.”

Continue reading “Brahms via Schoenberg: The Piano Quartet in G minor”