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Grateful to Strunk

In response to:

A Master Musicologist from the February 6, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

The honest tribute paid by Mr. Charles Rosen to Professor O. Strunk [NYR, February 6] indicates that its author, however benevolent, is not sufficiently familiar with the problems of Byzantine music. It constitutes no disparagement of Professor Strunk when I emphatically deny Mr. Rosen’s claim that “it is thanks to his work, above all, that we can now decipher the early notation of Byzantine chant with a reasonable assurance of getting the right notes.” A few weeks ago the Nestor of the studies of Byzantine chant and its notation, Professor Egon Wellesz of Oxford, has passed away in his eighty-ninth year. It was thanks to his and to the late Professor Tillyard’s work and indefatigable efforts, dating back more than fifty years, that we can evaluate Byzantine notation and transcribe it. Is it necessary that I mention Wellesz’s standard work, A History of Byzantine Music, which has now appeared in its third revised edition? Yet not even Wellesz was the pioneer in the field; if there was one, that claim goes to Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pitra (1812-1889). I do not wish to take issue with Mr. Rosen for other possible and impossible statements in his article.

I am sure that Professor Strunk would be the last man to deny Wellesz and Tillyard’s priorities. I happen to know the points on which Strunk and Wellesz disagreed—I was indirectly involved in that controversy.

Eric Werner

Hebrew Union College

New York City

Charles Rosen replies:

The deceptive tribute paid by Mr. Eric Werner to Professor E. Wellesz is welcome in so far as it reminds us of the importance of that great and distinguished scholar, and of his priority—contested by none—in Byzantine studies. If Mr. Werner wished only to qualify what I have written about Strunk by calling attention to the considerable work that preceded Strunk’s and on which it was based, he would receive from me only an apology for a slightly injudicious phrase.

But if Mr. Werner implies that Strunk has not gone considerably beyond Wellesz in his work on Byzantine notation, making contributions of major importance, it is only fair to add that other musicologists who have worked in the field of Byzantine chant would not agree with him. Wellesz, for one, would not have agreed. Is it necessary that I call Werner’s attention to the following note from Wellesz’s History of Byzantine Music, which appeared already in the second edition?

I am most grateful to Prof. O. Strunk for having drawn attention to the passages [some of the “formulae” of Byzantine Chant] in his article on “The Notation of the Chartres Fragment” to which frequent reference will be made in these pages. Strunk’s article marks an important step forward in clarifying the question of how far it was possible to bring the early stages of Byzantine music within the scope of our studies. [A History of Byzantine Music, 2nd Ed., Oxford, 1961, p. 271]

The humorless and mean-spirited innuendo employed by Mr. Werner—the suggestion that I am “benevolent” in praising Strunk, the unspecified “points” of disagreement between Wellesz and Strunk, Werner’s self-control in not identifying “other possible and impossible statements” in my review—all this hides nothing of substance; it is probably only a professional deformation, a tic of style, of implying something that is not there, that Werner developed the better to present his own musicological work, largely a tissue of unsupported conjectures. Some few of these conjectures concerning the relation of Byzantine to Hebrew chant were accepted by Wellesz, and the gratitude obliquely expressed by Werner’s letter does him credit: the sour tone of its expression, however, is deplorable.

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