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A Musicological Offering

Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology

by Joseph Kerman
Harvard University Press, 255 pp., $15.00


By some etymological quirk music is the only art that adds the suffix “-ologist” to identify some of its professional students. We encounter biologists, physiologists, and entomologists in the sciences, but no corresponding “dramatologists,” “sculptologists,” or “choreologists.” There is a certain irony in this, especially for those who view music as the least cerebral of the arts. Universities have nevertheless settled upon that portentous and curiously abstract label for professional students of music history. As disseminated in America since the First World War, the term “musicology”1 borrows directly from musicologie, coined by the French during the last third of the nineteenth century as a less-than-scintillating translation of the more encompassing German Musikwissenschaft.

Even cultivated people frequently have only a hazy view of this discipline; hence a bit of prehistory can set the stage for consideration of Joseph Kerman’s idiosyncratic survey of musical studies today. Beginning with its position as part of the Greek quadrivium (along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy), music—and especially its theory—was long viewed as a quasi-scientific discipline. Learned treatises expounding the “universal” (i.e., newest) laws of harmony and rhythm were set down in Latin through the seventeenth century. But regardless of how erudite the discourse, the study of music before the nineteenth century was concerned largely with the immediate present or the very recent past; insofar as earlier writers were invoked (Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Augustine), it was to lend support to very current arguments. Around 1475 the Renaissance theorist and composer Johannes Tinctoris proclaimed that no music written more than forty years before—about the time of his birth—was worth listening to.

Interest in the music of dead composers—the eventual subject of musicologists—came only gradually. An important step took place in London around 1725 with the formation of the Academy of Vocal (later, “Ancient”) Music, “an attempt to restore ancient church music…by the composition of the Ancients is meant of such as lived before the end of the sixteenth century.” Although it set off no Europeanwide rush of interest in early music, this distinguished and enthusiastic body met regularly (mostly at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand) for almost seventy years before disbanding in 1792.

One of its richer members, Sir John Hawkins, published in 1776 A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. Beginning in the same year his countryman Charles Burney brought out A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the present Period, to which is prefixed, a Dissertation on the Music of the Ancients. Hawkins’s musical analyses are generally inept, and he digresses upon such ephemera as the effects of music upon animals. His rival Burney gave an account of history in which music moved from a “barbarous” past to the dazzling present. Nevertheless, the stage was set for the serious study of music within a historical setting.

The accomplished dilettantism of Burney and Hawkins was gradually supplanted by a steady stream of publications devoted to the decipherment and explication of previously unknown medieval texts. Beginning musicologists are still required to study these texts, which include Martin Gerbert’s edition of forty medieval treatises on music (1784); the fully professional editions of Coussemaker (1864–1876, intended to supplement Gerbert); the studies of medieval notation by Johannes Wolf (1904); and the editions of thirteenth-century polyphony published by Friedrich Ludwig in 1910.

These studies of medieval music coincided with a revival of interest in newly “ancient” composers like Bach and Handel. In 1802 Johann Forkel published his modest, pathbreaking biography of the Leipzig cantor. The next year Breitkopf & Härtel brought out their edition of Handel’s Messiah (which Mozart had arranged for a Viennese performance in 1789). All forty volumes in Arnold’s English Handel edition were available in time to give solace to Beethoven during his final illness in 1827. In that same year Breitkopf brought out Ein’ feste Burg, the first of Bach’s church cantatas to be printed after his death. The twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn’s unabashedly romanticized production two years later in Berlin of the St. Matthew Passion gave added impetus to the Bach revival that still seems to be going on.2

Such archival and editorial activities form the backbone of traditional musicology—what Kerman calls “positivistic musicology”—whose methods were borrowed in large part from nineteenth-century German historiography. What Kerman writes about the most eminent scholars of a generation ago (including Curt Sachs, Oliver Strunk, Paul Henry Lang, and Arthur Mendel) would apply equally to Forkel, Coussemaker, and Wolf, as well as to most musicologists today:

The emphasis was heavily on fact. New manuscripts were discovered and described, archives were reported on, dates were established…. Musicologists dealt mainly in the verifiable, the objective, the uncontroversial, and the positive.


Joseph Kerman’s book will come as a considerable surprise to those readers whose understanding of musicology is limited either to the traditional studies I have mentioned or to the writings of newspaper critics, popular biographers, and program book annotators. Kerman spends almost no time on the day-to-day activities of modern musical life; we read nothing of Lincoln Center or the Met, of Ashkenazy, Perlman, or Pavarotti. Nor does Kerman—in spite of the book’s misleading title—restrict himself to the concerns of traditional musicology. Instead, he describes his book as “one musician’s analysis of modern ideas and ideologies of music.” It is in fact a masterly exposition of what Kerman views as the pivotal intellectual issues surrounding postwar musical studies—an exposition that even his critics would readily concede him to be uniquely qualified to undertake.

Kerman begins by sorting out the bewildering number of special interest groups within academic musical circles. The traditional musicologist, he writes, studies “the history of Western music in the high-art tradition”—Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner. The ethnomusicologist sees the entire universe of music, especially “non-Western musics,” as his province, with emphasis upon the role of music in society. Music theorists, Kerman writes, are concerned with the “general principles and individual features” of music that assure its “continuity, coherence, and organization.” He pays much attention to showing how theories of musical language in the postwar period have been dominated by avant-garde composer/theorists such as Milton Babbitt. Some theorists, notably followers of Heinrich Schenker, specialize in what Kerman calls “analysis”—the detailed explication of the “structure” of particular compositions. The schools of analysis deriving from Schenker and the English musician Donald Francis Tovey are mainly devoted to pre-twentieth-century tonal music.

In discussing these disciplines, Contemplating Music pulls few punches. As we shall see, musicology, theory, and analysis receive generally low marks. Ethnomusicology, especially as it applies to Western art music, comes in for some demythologizing. On the other hand, Kerman finds promising both musicology that engages in the critical evaluation of music—Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style is held up as an “encouragement” to critical scholarship—and the “historical performance movement,” which seeks to reconstruct and restore the original conditions under which music was played, including the instruments that played it. Although his book may annoy a good many musical scholars, some of whom will miss mention of their work, it is written with grace and good humor.

Kerman’s central criticism of traditional musicology—one that echoes throughout his writings, from his provocative book Opera as Drama3 to his rich, full-length study of William Byrd’s Latin sacred music4—is that its positivist approach excludes the values that “adhere to music itself, such as its aesthetic features.” As a result, “musicologists are respected for the facts they know about music. They are not admired for their insights into music as aesthetic experience.” This does not inhibit Kerman’s admiration for the major achievements of positivist musicology, including the fundamental revision of the Bach chronology during the 1950s. The traditional nineteenth-century view, summarized by Philipp Spitta, was that Bach wrote his cantatas during a period of two decades culminating in the great chorale cantatas. Even though Spitta had studied characteristics such as the watermarks of Bach’s own manuscripts, his conclusions were seriously flawed. The work in the 1950s of Alfred Dürr and Georg von Dadelsen, using similar techniques applied with greater rigor, revealed that Bach had actually created the “great majority of his hundreds of church cantatas in one superhuman spurt from 1723 to 1727, rather than spreading them out to around 1740.” The evidence that Bach had withdrawn from church music shattered a Bach myth and forced scholars to revise “a whole congeries of ideas about Bach’s pattern of activity as a composer.” Nevertheless, Kerman is still waiting for the full implications of the new chronology to be incorporated into an up-to-date picture of Bach’s style.

For most of his career (spent largely at the University of California, Berkeley, with a brief period in the early 1970s as Heather Professor of Music at Oxford), his attacks on positivism have established Kerman as something of a maverick within the musicological establishment. His lecture “A Profile for American Musicology” read at the American Musicological Society’s 1964 national meeting, laid down the challenge he continues to make in this book. In his address, Kerman argued that what was missing in academic musicology was criticism—which he defined (by analogy to literature and visual art rather than to music journalism) as “the way of looking at art that tries to take into account the meaning it conveys, the pleasure it initiates, and the value it assumes, for us today.”

Kerman praises Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style as the kind of musicology he would like to see practiced more widely. When it first appeared more than a dozen years ago, this study of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven shook the musicological establishment to its foundations. Footnotes were infrequent and the bibliography scanty. But most important, Rosen eschewed generalizations about what was and was not the classical style for detailed analyses of individual works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. He insisted that “a work of music sets its own terms.” Yet Rosen’s book, Kerman maintains, “draws abundantly” from both musicology and theory, as well as from nonmusical intellectual traditions. In it “there are cameos about classical music as a mirror of the intellectual history of the Enlightenment—on Haydn’s art as an example of the pastoral genre; on Don Giovanni, with its unruly combination of liberalism and eroticism, as ‘an attack, at once frontal and oblique, upon aesthetic and moral values.’ ” He adds that “the book’s structure scarcely hides the intention to encompass not all, certainly, of the music of the classical style, but all the music that Roses judges to be the best.”

Paradoxically, some writers who start out from Kerman’s premises go on to reach views that he would roundly reject. For example, Rose Rosengard Subotnik, a disciple of Theodor Adorno, endorses Kerman’s general view that musicology should be more concerned with criticism. But she makes a simultaneous plea on behalf of specialization that suggests that criticism and musicology should not be combined as Kerman would want:

  1. 1

    The original version of Kerman’s work, titled simply Musicology, appeared in the Fontana Masterguides series edited by Frank Kermode (London, 1985). Apparently fearing the estrangement of all but specialists, the American publisher insisted upon a more benign, though alas more ponderous, title.

  2. 2

    For example, a sizable number of Bach’s early chorale settings were discovered by Christoph Wolff in 1984—just in time for the tercentenary celebrations this year of his birth.

  3. 3

    Provocative” largely for a celebrated reference in its final chapter to Puccini’s Tosca as that “shabby little shocker”; in scholarly circles this phrase is still invoked with a voyeuristic pleasure at the kind of language that one ought, really, to shun. Fewer people quote from the illuminating and closely argued comparison in the introduction between the final acts of Tosca and Verdi’s Otello.

  4. 4

    The Music of William Byrd, Vol. I: The Masses and Motets (University of California Press, 1981).

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