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:

What I do challenge is the inhuman demand that the critic master, in their entirety, not only the skills, literature, and problems of his own craft but also those of empiricist musicology as well as those of any other traditionally defined discipline on whose domain he treads, in order to assure his work a degree of certainty that is neither relevant to criticism nor intellectually attainable. What I do believe is that a diligent effort should be made to understand the critic’s principles of order, along with the rationale and discipline based on those principles, on their own terms.5

This view is far removed from Kerman’s position (and, for that matter, from Adorno’s). Kerman believes there is a symbiotic relationship between the gathering of facts and their interpretation. “Between criticism and its antithesis, positivistic musicology,” he writes, Subotnik “sees an impasse. My own view is more pragmatic and eclectic. What I see is infiltration.”

As evidence of such “infiltration,” Kerman cites recent research on Verdi, including the three-volume study of the operas by julian Budden, a BBC producer, and a study by a psychologist of “obsessive themes that recur in Verdi’s oeuvre in relation to his own life history.” Kerman endeavors to show that some of this work employs methods of positivistic musicology to cast light on an evaluation of Verdi’s work. For example, “a critic-temporarily-turned-musicologist uncovered pages of Don Carlos that were cut from the score…just before the premiere, and showed how important they were to the dramatic shape of certain scenes. The Metropolitan Opera restored some of these pages and videocast them to the millions.” He adds, “It would be pointless to try to determine which of this work should be classified as musicology, theory, analysis, criticism, or praxis. Much of it could only be characterized in terms of mixed genres.” Nevertheless, Kerman thinks such work “contributes to the understanding and appreciation of Verdi’s operas as scores, as sound, as spectacle, as drama, as social commentary, and as personal testament…. It is work that is headed in the right direction.”

Kerman also finds grounds for hope in recent work on the Beethoven sketches, the 1970s counterpart to the earlier work on Bach chronology. The process of reconstruction—undertaken by a team of musicologists led by Alan Tyson—occurred in a field which Kerman says “has never lacked for philological rigor.” In contrast to earlier research in this field, Kerman now finds “an orientation towards a new musicology.” Tyson and his colleagues have not only compiled an exhaustive checklist to “al Beethoven’s fifty-odd sketchbooks, complete and incomplete, the ink-written desk ones and the pencil-scrawled pocket ones,” but “they have not waited for airtight bibliographical control before plunging in and interpreting the sketches,” which provide evidence for the genesis of Beethoven’s compositions. An examination of eight drafts of a part of the “Pastoral” Symphony, for example, showed how Beethoven repeatedly modified his own conceptions as he wrote. The new Beethoven scholarship

can be characterized as musicology oriented towards criticism in two senses…[it is directed] towards the musicologist’s concept of and response to the work of art as art, and towards the composer’s own self-criticism. The idea is of course to get the two senses to collapse into one.

Not all Beethoven scholars share Kerman’s optimism; one of the most brilliant of Kerman’s own students, Douglas Johnson (himself a major contributer to the new Beethoven research), has been sharply skeptical about how much the studies of sketches have so far illuminated the finished works themselves.6

Positivistic musicology only heads the list of disciplines that Kerman faults for their insularity. Of musical analysis he writes, “If the musicologists’ characteristic failure is superficiality, that of the analysts is myopia…. By removing the bare score from its context in order to examine it as an autonomous organism, the analyst removes that organism from the ecology that sustains it.” This has been especially true of those “monistic” systems of analysis that rely on a single “secret” of musical coherence. Heinrich Schenker, for example, developed an analytical system that reduces works of music from Bach to Brahms to a series of layers that can be discerned in the foreground, middle ground, and background of each such work. In the background layer of the piece, Schenker claimed, can be found a fundamental line, which he said is a prolonged descent to the tonic note, the last significant note of the piece. Other methods of musical analysis, such as the search for “thematic affinities” carried out by Rudolph Reti, or the “set theories” of Allen Forte, are as insular and one-sided as Schenker’s.

If musical analysis is myopic, it has also failed to provide adequate analyses of even the most important masterpieces. When Kerman notes that there are “major works in the canon for which no sustained analytical studies…have ever been published,” he cites as examples Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. But where do we send our brightest students for up-to-date analyses of not just the “Ghost” Trio, but even of Beethoven’s nine symphonies? The student of English literature who has mastered countless glosses of Hamlet can scarcely comprehend that Beethoven and Mozart, much less Isaac and Bruckner, have yet to receive anything remotely approaching this depth of treatment.

Kerman points out that an uneasy alliance has been formed between analysts of tonal music and avant-garde theorists. Most of the influential work on music theory emanated in the 1950s and 1960s from Princeton, where Milton Babbitt exercised a dominant influence. Kerman gives Babbitt and his colleagues credit for creating post-Schoenbergian compositional theory. But their preoccupation with theory led young composers to write “more and more theory and less and less music. And the theory they wrote, it seemed to many who read it or tried to read it, was calculated to perplex as much as to inform and illuminate.” For Kerman, compositional theory “can only be judged by its reflection in actual music,” whereas Babbitt’s work “looks inward to the private refuge of the composer’s workshop.” Indeed, Kerman says,

few musicians can comfortably thread their way through Babbitt’s more difficult papers or those of certain of his students. No branch of music theory since the Middle Ages has given so strong an impression of curling away from the experience of music into the far reaches of the theorists’ intellects.

Babbitt’s prestige, Kerman writes, “rests on his compositions, not on his theory; nobody would ever have paid him any heed if they had not been impressed by his music.” (His Philomel for soprano and electronic tape [1964] Kerman calls a “classic of the genre.”)

Kerman believes that the kind of compositional theory developed by Babbitt and his associates provided a rationale for the avant-garde composers who had cast their lot with the academy. Babbitt and his colleagues conceived their theory as a form of pure science which had “a claim on the university as a protector of abstract thought.” In 1962 they founded a journal, Perspectives of New Music, devoted to compositional theory and analysis, which became the forum where new Ph.Ds in composition “might hope to get both their music reviewed (or analyzed) and their theory articles published in an unexceptionably imposing format.”

Kerman’s criticism will likely offend the academics who specialize in composition and theory. Perspectives provides an elegant example of prestige outstripping influence; the journal has had markedly less effect on what is performed in major concert halls than on what is discussed in Northeastern academic circles. Kerman might use this circumstance as a call to reform, in which the first step would be the abolition of graduate degrees in composition, or at least their recasting so that composers would not become preoccupied with propagating rarefied theories. Defenders of Perspectives would point to the university as their only refuge in a world of crass commercialism, indolent orchestra managers, hostile audiences, and profit-minded recording executives. Negotiations between the feuding factions over the last decade have been every bit as productive as those between Washington and Moscow during the first Reagan term.


Kerman takes up two fresh and seemingly unrelated subjects in this book: ethnomusicology (or “cultural musicology”) and the “historical performance movement.” He begins his ethnological discussion with the casual disclaimer that “I too am not very interested in non-Western musics,” making no attempt to justify an offhand position that is certain to irritate devotees of ethnomusicology (many of whom, as Kerman notes, come to the field out of disaffection with middleclass, Western values). But it requires little reading between the lines to divine that Kerman’s curiosity does not extend to societies without musical masterpieces.

The only ethnomusicologist he openly admires is Charles Seeger, that “universalist par excellence” who “found many occasions to chide musicologists for their ethnocentric and class-centric attitudes. Later he was more inclined to chide ethnomusicologists for their neglect of cultural change (that is, history) and musical analysis.” Kerman’s sympathies are indeed closer to Seeger’s than to Western musicologists of narrower focus.

Yet Kerman is not impressed by the claims of the ethnomusicologist to cultural objectivity:

The most general exhortation, that musicologists give up their ethnocentric bias, can be quickly dismissed, coming as it does with little grace from scholars whose aim of objective study covering the whole range of world music is egregiously culture-bound to Western social-scientific ideology.

The appeal of “cultural musicology” to Kerman is precisely that it can lead to a more broadly based approach to the criticism of Western art music.

But to date this is little more than a hope. The most promising example he can muster of work that combines “consideration of art in its context and in itself” is a single chapter on Schoenberg in Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, where Schorske discusses in detail the first song in Schoenberg’s Stefan Georg cycle, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten.

In a rather wonderful way his discussion of Schoenberg—and of Kokoschka, Klimt, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, and the ‘Ringstrasse’ architects—distributes its energy equally between the socio-political context which is the nominal theme of Schorske’s study, and the works of art themselves. It is quite impossible to say which side of the equation mainly moves or animates the author, or which mainly informs the reader.

In spite of its lack of technical sophistication, Kerman finds in Schorske’s approach “a significant model for musicologists, as for students of the other arts.”

Similar hopes lie behind Kerman’s interest in the “historical performance movement,” an unhappy label for efforts to perform music “according to the reconstructed performing traditions and conditions of its own time and place.”Three decades ago it consisted largely of harpsichord kits built in home basements for well-meaning performances before amateur societies. Today the movement, which Kerman sees as going from “strength to strength,” receives enthusiastic reviews in the previously indifferent pages of Time, High Fidelity, and The New York Times. A small but flourishing musical industry has emerged to present masterpieces by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in reconstructed form.

In his brief history of the historical performance movement (to my knowledge, the first to be published), Kerman writes: “Musicologists seek to reconstruct and understand the music of the past,” but “unlike literature, music consists of much more than texts—or to put it another way, a text is a much less complete record of a work of art in music than it is in literature.” After establishing a critical text, musicologists must try to determine “all those features of the music that conventional musical notation leaves out,” including absolute pitch level, the tuning of scales, tempi, rhythm, ornaments such as trills, and cadenzas. In addition, they must investigate how instruments, “by means of which all this notated and unnotated music was transformed into sound,” were bowed, blown, or fingered, as well as “aspects of playing that are not stricty sonorous, such as the control of dynamics, ornamentation, articulation, and phrasing.”

Apart from distinguished exceptions such as Thurston Dart and Howard Mayer Brown, Kerman notes that musicologists—like theorists and analysts—have maintained an almost conspiratorial silence about performance. The main promoters in the historical performance movement have not, on the whole, been musicologists, but “historically minded performers.” Like the best of these—among them, Malcolm Bilson, Christopher Hogwood, and Nikolaus von Harnoncourt—Kerman is less interested in establishing historically “authentic” performances than in discovering more convincing interpretations of individual works of art. Authenticity “should not be valued in itself, only in the service of the ever-better interpretation of music.” His attraction to historical performance grows out of direct musical experience:

No one who has heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata or the Sonata in D Minor, opus 31 no. 2, well played on the fortepiano will ever be entirely happy with them again on the modern piano. In a natural way, true to its own capabilities, the old instrument provides this music with clarities and sensitivities which the new instrument can, at best, simulate only in a way that holds it back from realizing its capabilities.


It is difficult to resist being swept along by Kerman’s Gesamtkunstwerk view (to invoke Wagner in another context) of the musicological mission, one that encompasses and balances cultural and political history, theory, analysis, and performance, and would inform all of these with high critical sensibility. The very breadth of this musicological agenda has probably acted as a deterrent to its widespread acceptance. To put it bluntly, the genius required for the comprehensive interpretation of musical works seems almost on a par with the genius required for their creation. But there are additional reasons, scarcely touched upon in Contemplating Music, that require brief elucidation.

To begin with, music is—like dance and theater—fundamentally a performance art. It is no accident that the kinds of literary and visual art criticism to which Mr. Kerman points with understandable envy are primarily reflective, interior activities. Yes, there are poetry readings—but poetry criticism rarely refers to such occasions, even when performed by the authors themselves. If music criticism is compared to theater and dance criticism, music fares much less badly. On the other hand, although the legacy of music criticism is less rich than that of literature—and is, in Mr. Kerman’s view, frequently irrelevant—the contributions made during the last century and a half by writers such as Robert Schumann, Eduard Hanslick, Hector Berlioz, George Bernard Shaw, Virgil Thomson, and Winton Dean transcend those of routine music criticism frequently enough to merit at least token consideration in a book preoccupied with reconciling musical scholarship and evaluation.

Second, of the performance arts, music requires the most abstract, highly technical language for its execution and comprehension, much less for its critical evaluation. The beginning art student will already have had years of experience with the concept of perspective—which figures equally in an oil painting or a billboard—even if he is unaware of the formal rules for creating perspective that have evolved since the Renaissance. Conversely, beginning music students must master a great many theoretical constructs before they can understand intellectually, much less hear, something as simple as a dominant-tonic cadence: To put it even more succinctly: one can fairly easily become a bad actor or a bad painter. But in order to be a bad composer you must first master an entire notational and theoretical grammar that may require years of study.

Finally, and perhaps as a partial result of the necessary preparation, we have the depressingly fragmented curriculums of most university and conservatory music programs. Call it the Subotnik syndrome, call it specialization, but in schools where degrees in the different musical disciplines are offered, the requirements common to all tend to be insignificant, and shrinking all the time. Tired of fighting wars of attrition, faculties finally recite without conviction the litany that, after all, “composers are composers, performers are performers, and scholars are scholars, each with largely separate needs.”

The institutions where traditional musicology is both most distinguished and most entrenched are precisely those where the emphasis upon performance is weakest (Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania). The strength of a graduate program in musicology can be measured not only by the size and depth of the library holdings, but by the extent of neglect and decay in the practice rooms. Those institutions engaged primarily in turning out performers make sure that scholars are outgunned by as much as ten to one (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Eastman, even more so at Curtis and Juilliard), or, as at Yale, that they are across campus. At many of these institutions there are respectful truces, sometimes bordering on peaceful coexistence, but genuine collaboration between musical scholars and those who teach performance is almost unheard of. Even among intellectuals there is continuing fragmentation: the Society for Music Theory was founded during the last decade to offset the insufficient attention paid to theory and analysis by the American Musicological Society—or so the founders claim; others argue that the founders were trying to avoid taking responsibility for history.

A book that ranges with such dexterity so far beyond its announced scope is bound to create dissatisfactions of another kind. If theory and analysis and historical performance are indeed proper subjects of investigation for the musicologist of the mid-1980s, then why should Kerman stop short of addressing the larger questions of music’s place in society, of the relationship between art music and popular music, and of music education in our schools and universities? Except for general exhortations to heed the claims of criticism, this admirable book contains no discussion of the institutional imbalances that continue to produce the very myopia it so eloquently laments. In spite of the evangelical fervor on many pages, Kerman clearly does not enjoy the role of political reformer. His accounts of the “infiltration” of criticism into musical studies are peopled largely by those who have managed to circumvent academic musicological training. Charles Rosen is a pianist who holds no degrees in music; Edward Cone was trained as a composer, Alan Tyson as a classicist and psychoanalyst; Andrew Porter is a magazine critic. The younger scholars to whom Kerman points with justified pride often flourish by breaking the mold of the institutions that produced them.

These quibbles, however, only underscore the trenchancy of Kerman’s criticism of the academic status quo. His diagnosis is as brilliant and thorough as we have the right to expect from one mind; if as a clinician he prescribes little in the way of long-term treatment, musicians of all sorts ought to view this as a challenge, rather than as one more pretext for fleeing from their collective responsibility to give music the balanced critical attention it deserves—no less than the other arts.

This Issue

July 18, 1985