joseph kerman's rock and the splash it made


Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (1985)

Joseph Kerman. Harvard University Press. 255p (with notes, citations and index)

Note: It is also known in the U.K. as "Musicology", published by Fontana Press/Collins…which is the version I have. There are exactly the same number of pages, so hopefully my page citations are the same, but keep that in mind if you buy the book and can't find the quotes on those pages.

Joseph Kerman's historic work levels much criticism towards the field of musicology at the time. During the 80s, musicology was dominated by positivism, a near-exclusive focus on scientific/document based study that discourages critical analysis and interpretation. Kerman felt that nearly all musicological research was devoid of criticism (the study of the meaning and value of art, in his own words) and was a "call to arms, so to speak, for the academic community to get its act together and embrace art criticism as practiced by most other art forms (painting, sculpture, etc)(p16). As a reading in 2012 looking back, it certainly made me realize how much of our music history textbook I took for granted and would have not existed in the same form back then. Kerman lays out his case over the course of the book, dividing the book up into sections to tackle different aspects which are outlined below.

Overall, I loved reading this book. Highly informative, very well researched and plenty of bite. Keeping in mind this book was written 25 years ago, you can look back and see how Kerman's book sent ripples through the community, even contributing to the reactionary movement of "New Musicology". If you're interested in musicology or planning on majoring in it, this should definitely be on your bookshelf.

Notes on what's inside:

Introduction and Postwar Positivism:

Kerman discusses the gradual birth of musicology, which contrary to what is assumed, was not until long after music began being written down. The idea of music as having enduring value and being of aesthetic interest didn't really begin until the early 1800s when composers were granted a place in the preeminent canon, rather than being forgotten after they died (33). Up until WWII musicology was primarily exclusive to Germany, but many scholars fled German to the United States and England during the war, resulting in the discipline (and the centers of research) shifting to other countries. The advent of recording technologies, allowing music to shift from sound to something tangible that could be browsed and owned (like books) is also mentioned as helping the eruption of musicology after the war(25).

Kerman observes that musicology (though I also believe this applies to music in general) is a highly conservative field and that musicologists after the turn of the century almost always came from the middle class, since "classical" music had gradually become the property of the middle class and they had to protect it and their values(36). He critiques the musicology publications of the early 60s, which he believed ignored music and its relationship to culture, instead viewed it in a vacuum to form a chronological guide(43, 54). 

Analysis, Theory and New Music

Kerman discusses the unique changes of early 20th century music, when "avant-garde" theory was used to aid (even be a part of) the compositional process, while tonal theory from the earlier century was used as a form of criticism which he cites as the reason that caused musicologists to ignore new works and retreat into the past. He presents a multi-pronged critique of Schenkerian analysis and why a vacuum isn't a valid method for addressing music (70-85). He also closes the section by bringing to light important music scholarship done by Schoenberg, Edward Cone and Perle.

Musicology and Criticism

The initial rebellion against positivism in musicology was lead by Leo Treitler and Joseph Kerman (yes, the book's author). Treitler was a big proponent of hermeneutics (comprehensive interpretation of a work of art in all possible contexts), feeling frustrated with how musicology of the time assumed a very "evolutionary" view of music (basic leading to sophisticated, implying the later always being the better of the two) (130-132). For this very reason, Kerman points out how the deck is stacked against medieval music, especially since there is far fewer source materials to call on.

He then leads into the new advances done with sketches and score autographs, which first began with Beethoven and then fanned out into other composers, praising this research because it almost always leads to the criticism he wishes there was more of (136-142). He also comments on the birth of the 19th Century Music journal from UC Berkeley in the late 70s, signaling a great shift in musicology towards scholarship closer to the present(145). Finally, he spends a whole chapter praising Charles Rosen's The Classical Style.

Ethnomusicology and 'Cultural Musicology'

Mostly, this section just explores the history of ethnomusicology. Kerman's ending point of the section is that he believes musicology should bring ideas over into the study of Western art music, to view music within the context of culture instead of just an isolated occurrence.

The Historical Performance Movement

Here is where Kerman really pulls out the punches and lets historical performance have a piece of his mind. He views historical performance as a three step process (1. establish critical text, 2. establish features conventional notation left out of music, 3. research the instruments on which music was originally played) that is governed by a sort of "cost-worth" analysis (how feasible is it, is there value in doing it, how does interpretation factor into equation) (187-190).

Kerman's main beef with historical performance is the cult status it had achieved in the 80s and people were more concerned with whether a work was played under historical conditions as opposed to whether the performance was actually good. He poses the question of while "authentic" performances may not always be good, is it possible to have a good "inauthentic" performance (192). He even goes as far as to say "not all musicians are good critics or interpreters"(202). He also comments on the slow progress being made in historical performance since its similar to learning a language nobody speaks anymore in that you have nobody to teach it to you (212-213). Personally, this was my favorite chapter to read and its worth reading the book just for this section.


Kerman ends with discussing the merits of New Grove's Encyclopedia (he thought it was sort of a double edged sword) and questioning whether critical scores in the future will be as helpful as good historically informed recordings (227). 

Notable Quotes:

"Analysts want to look more and more at less and less music"

-Joseph Kerman, in describing the change it attitude of musicologists at the rise of avant-garde music in the early 1900s (71)

"Authenticity is no guarantee of a good performance, certainly. But does the reverse hold: can there be such a thing as a good one under conditions of, say, gross inauthenticity?"

-Joseph Kerman, questioning the value of historical performance (192)

"One lesson taught by history - though not, it seems, easily learned - is all music is expressive but that music is not all expressive in the same way"

-Joseph Kerman (211)

"The act of composing is the act of fixing those limits within which the performer may move freely. But the performer’s freedom is - or should be - bound in another way. The limits the composer sets belong to a system which in may respects is like a language: it has an order, a syntax and a meaning. The performer brings out that meaning, makes its significance not only clear but almost palpable. And there is no reason to assume that the composer and his contemporaries always knew with certainty how best to make the listener aware of that significance.” 

–Charles Rosen (216)

“I have often heard it stated by scholars and others interested in performance on early instruments that they would rather hear a great artist on the wrong instrument than a mediocre player on the right one. I am no longer willing to accept that statement….For a mediocre performance it does not matter what kind of instrument is used. This is not merely a platitude; the choice of instrument only becomes meaningful when the artist has something very specific to express….Musicians who do not are in no way better served by authentic instruments than standard modern ones….I would like to hope that it is not the sound of the instrument that pushes the [historical performance] movement forward, but rather the searching for an even-better interpretation of the music….”

-Malcom Bilson (216-7)