Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nerd Alert

Someone has written a book about musicology:  Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music.  For me this is interesting stuff.

To start with he worries about why musicology.  Musicology, the study of music in history, is basically the same profession as art historian.  Does anyone ask why art history?  If you go to a museum, there are pictures hanging.  Someone has to decide what you get to see, and that person is an art historian.  They decide what is worth looking at and what isn’t.  Art is interesting, so people study it and become art historians.

Musicologists have a similar function, but there are subtle differences.  Music is interesting, so people study it.  But unlike art which exists whether anyone looks at it or not, music only exists if someone is listening.  It exists only in the moment.  Musicologists spend a lot of time on studying old manuscripts, transcribing them into modern notation and creating critical editions for potential performances.  To create the moment of existence. 

The reason for musicology is love.  Someone loves a particular music and studies it.  Usually Germans study German music, British people study British music.  Only Americans appear to be generalists and study music from other countries.  He complains that there is little evaluation of whether or not the particular music being studied is worthy of the attention being paid to it.  He complains a lot.

He traces the history of musicology back to the rediscovery of Bach early in the 19th century.  The primary focus of musicology is what he calls western art music.  However, his primary focus is the entire intellectual musical landscape of the post WWII period.

The closest I came to musicology came from having failed the history portion of the entrance exam to Indiana University.  My repertoire and therefore my knowledge was from the Romantic and Modern periods, so I breezed through those.  I recognized the Lied that was asked about.  I recognized the peculiar chord from the Symphony of Psalms.  But earlier periods were something else entirely, and I had to study them painstakingly from a real musicologist.  He wanted facts and lots of them.

One of the results of all this is the history book posted in the links at left.  I found it useful and fascinating to group music into generations and recognize that there were common features to all the music of a single generation, that things changed in discrete chunks of time.   You could teach yourself to recognize the dates and identities of composers and pieces of music just by pegging them on one of these style periods.  I felt a sudden useful clarity.  It is a conceptual generalization and not a set of facts.  If I were to try to improve it today, I would add more style information.

[Please note. Just as I am not an opera critic, I am also not a book critic. I review based on what thoughts the book stimulates while I am reading it. The more diverse the thinking, the better the book.]

I am finding Kerman's book fascinating, even though I don’t always get what he’s talking about. Kerman talks about generalizations a lot without really tying them to the specific examples. Positivism, for instance. He appears often to be preaching to the choir. These guys all know what he’s talking about, I suppose.

There is a nice section in Contemplating Music about the progress of Bach scholarship since WWII. It is fascinating to think that the same composer that set off the existence of musicology continues to stimulate thinking. His dates of composition have all been rearranged to put all the church cantatas before the Matthew Passion. This is fact based musicology.

There is something very satisfying about studying Bach. For instance, he was a master of counterpoint in a way that perhaps no one else was. Kerman talks about his use of prima pratica, the style of composition that points back to Palestrina, and says that parts of the B minor mass are in this style. He also talks about Bach’s familiarity with the very Rococo Pergolesi and his son CPE Bach. I was taught that Bach was stuck in the past, that by 1740 the world had passed him by. It would be nice to think that this wasn’t true. What would make this really interesting for me would be a list of specific examples. This is the world of YouTube. We never have to go without examples.

The big topic seems to be musicology vs. criticism. Our art historian would not worry about this. If he is picking out pictures for the walls of the Metropolitan Museum, he requires critical judgments and not just facts. Usually the musicologist isn’t the one who selects what pieces are played, but perhaps this is changing.

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