A Master Musicologist

Essays on Music in the Western World

by Oliver Strunk
Norton, 200 pp., $8.95

This modest volume contains the collected essays on Western music of the most distinguished musicologist this country has yet produced. The topics in it range from medieval music to Verdi, and it is to be followed soon by a second book, only slightly larger, which will assemble Strunk’s articles on Byzantine chant. Together with the introduction to a collection of facsimiles of Byzantine notation and the footnotes and brief introductions to the selections in Source Readings in Music History (an anthology of writings about music from the early Greeks to Wagner), these writings represent the total published work of Oliver Strunk.

This meager harvest is—to some extent, at least—deeply misleading. The footnotes to Source Readings betray a wealth of original research which almost alone would justify a lifetime. Strunk’s influence as a teacher and as a collaborator has been as remarkable as it has been self-effacing. Indeed, the references to him in the work of other historians are, as often as not, acknowledgments of suggestions made, notes and transcriptions lent, even whole pages written for them, rather than page references to his own publications.

Now seventy-three years old, Strunk retired in 1966 after thirty years of teaching at Princeton, but he has continued his researches in Byzantine music while living in Italy, taking up residence near a church where Byzantine forms can still be heard. 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. When Strunk began to teach, musicology barely existed in this country. He helped to create it, and has done more than anyone else to defend the quality of research.

In his writing, he has never been concerned to set down a sweeping panoramic view of a period or to elaborate a large general theory: his restraint makes his work seem bloodless to some of his colleagues. What he has consented to publish is generally the irrefutable establishment of a single fact or of a new method of classifying a given material, both the fact and the method being of seminal importance. But the importance is often left to the reader’s intelligence to discover: it is perhaps the one serious limitation on Strunk’s work that the less one knows about a subject the less one can learn from one of Strunk’s papers on it. He takes an aristocratic view of his profession.

The style of the essays, too, is extraordinarily concise. The facts are presented with a dry elegance: Strunk is reluctant to draw from them any conclusions except the most brief and obvious ones, although many of the shortest essays have had far-reaching effects and opened up new fields of research. When there is anything beyond a simple statement of the facts, it is generally to call attention to those aspects of the research which are tentative, provisional, and limited. He does not—in print—so much speculate as …

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Letters

Grateful to Strunk April 17, 1975