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.…

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