When compared to current work in art history or literary studies, American musical scholarship must seem very old-fashioned indeed. Much of it is devoted to finding, editing, and analyzing a large number of major and minor musical compositions that have been lying dormant in archives, libraries, and private collections. Several generations of music historians have devoted themselves to discovering and reclaiming this European and American musical past, and the results of their efforts are apparent throughout today’s musical life: in concert and recorded repertories, in performance styles, in the way we think about the music we hear. At the same time, it has become increasingly evident that such traditional kinds of research tend to isolate the study of music from the broader historical, aesthetic, and cultural issues that dominate humanistic scholarship today. Many musicologists are increasingly uneasy about this isolation.
The writings of Carl Dahlhaus suggest a variety of different approaches to music, while addressing the basic theoretical issues of the discipline from a perspective strongly rooted in the German aesthetic and philosophical tradition. Professor of music at the Technische Universität in Berlin from 1968 until his death this past March at the age of sixty, Dahlhaus was a man of broad interests and talents. Before assuming his university post, he undertook important research into the history of tonality and into the music of Josquin and Bach. He served as Dramaturg at the Göttingen Deutschen Theater for almost a decade, taught at the famous summer seminars on contemporary music at Darmstadt (as well as briefly in the US), and worked as music critic for the Stuttgarter Zeitung. He wrote on music aesthetics, music theory, analysis, Medieval music, Renaissance music, music in the classical period, nineteenth-century music (particularly Beethoven and Wagner—he was editor in chief of the new Wagner edition), and twentieth-century music (particularly Schoenberg).
Dahlhaus is one of the few European musical scholars whose major works have almost all been translated into English, On the occasion of the publication in English translation of what may well be his most important book, his history of nineteenth-century music, it is appropriate to reflect on the relationship between Dahlhaus’s and American musical studies, and to suggest some of the strengths and limitations of his work.
I had the good fortune to attend Dahlhaus’s 1968 Princeton seminars on music theory between 1500 and 1700. One phrase in my notes stands out:
Problem: reconstruct questions and issues to which text is an answer.
Or to put it differently: in considering the text before you, whether it is a musical composition or a written work, ask what issues and questions the author would have been addressing when he wrote it. This methodological concern, whether applied to theoretical treatises or works of art, resurfaced in whatever field Dahlhaus addressed. A characteristic statement of it appears in Nineteenth-Century Music, at …
The Music of Carl Dahlhaus: An Exchange April 26, 1990