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Paul Henry Lang

In response to:

From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra from the February 23, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

I have been a constant reader of The New York Review since its beginning. When the February 23 issue arrived, I turned at once to the article by Charles Rosen on the impressive six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, by musicologist Richard Taruskin, professor at Berkeley.

What first caught my eye was a reference to my late husband, Paul Henry Lang. Mr. Rosen wrote: “[Taruskin’s] inspiration…is the old textbook by his teacher Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization.” Well, it is “old”—sixty-five years, still in print, still being read; but as Leon Botstein, musician, humanities scholar, and president of Bard College, wrote in the introduction to a new printing, “It was never a textbook in the ordinary sense, but a long, discursive, interpretive essay.” He goes on to say that for this reason “it would not be appropriate to ‘update’ it. Lang’s magnum opus is a beautifully completed and well-proportioned but decidedly distinctive argument. It can be compared aptly to Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.”

But what is really disturbing is Rosen’s flat statement that “much of [his] book was written by his graduate assistants.” This is totally untrue.

When Paul Henry Lang and I married in 1936 (the year I received my BA from Barnard), the book’s first chapter, on ancient Greece, was finished. I can personally attest that nobody but he wrote a paragraph of the rest of the book. He wrote in longhand with almost no notes, then typed each chapter with two fingers, but fast. As each few pages were finished they were passed on to me for editing. I am the only editor he ever had. I was not qualified to judge the content, but looked for possible repetition, seeming contradictions, small grammatical errors—there were few—and made very occasional suggestions for changes in sentence structure. I made certain that his style was never diluted. As he was Hungarian-born, completed the requirements for his doctorate in musicology at the Sorbonne, and arrived in the US in 1929 not knowing any English, it is remarkable that in a few years he had mastered the language, which he used with accuracy, fluidity, and grace.

He had come to Columbia in 1934 to hold the first professorship of musicology in this country, and the graduate program was just getting underway as he was writing the book. Those few early students were novices in the field and could not possibly have produced such a work. I do not accuse Mr. Rosen of deliberate calumny, but it is hard to imagine where he heard this heretofore unknown rumor, or why he chose to state as fact an allegation detrimental to a fellow scholar who is no longer here to rebut it.

Anne Pecheux Lang

Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

Charles Rosen replies:

I am glad the rumor that was circulating more than fifty years ago is untrue, and I sincerely apologize to Ms. Lang for having repeated it.

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