Oral History and Music History in Our Time

The traditional historian usually writes history long after the fact. In most cases, when he begins his work, all but the merest fraction of the significant evidence has been dispersed or has disappeared altogether. The measure of his effectiveness lies first in his skill in unearthing whatever evidence has survived; second, in the degree to which his explanation fits the evidence; and third, in the extent to which his intuition and imagination succeed in weaving evidence, hypothesis, and conclusion into a convincing chronicle.

The oral historian functions differently. To begin with, he is not writing history; he is employing a method of gathering contemporary historical data. His method provides the traditional historian and the historical disciplines with an added dimension, for he sets out deliberately to create a body of historically significant evidence. The measure of his effectiveness lies first in the extent of his preparation and planning before interviewing so that he knows what evidence to seek; second, in his skill in selecting most appropriate respondents and his sensitivity to them before, during, and after interviewing so that the significant evidence is accumulated; and third, in the accuracy, objectivity, and usability of his presentation of that evidence. Strictly speaking, his work as an oral historian stops there. He may then, of course, transform himself into a traditional historian by weighing, evaluating, and sifting the oral data against hypotheses and conclusions in precisely the same way the scholar deals with evidence of any other kind and, of course, by using it in conjunction with such evidence.

An advantage of his oral data is that the historian himself has planned its creation. He is thus better able to assess its truthfulness than is the traditional historian dealing with literary sources with which he has had no prior connection. Furthermore, after studying all available evidence (written and oral) he can often resolve contradictions therein by further interviewing.

There are other special advantages to oral history. I am referring to the nature and breadth of the evidence that oral history is ideally suited to produce: the intimacies, the subtleties, the inflections—the sound and sense of a life history. It is not that written sources, such as letters and memoirs, are totally lacking in this type of evidence. The point is that, in an age when letter writing has been so extensively replaced by telephoning, few people write anything but lists, checks, and postcards. Indeed, many little-known but nonetheless important figures in our world of music, whose recollections have been recorded in recent years, might otherwise have remained "unheard" altogether—and forever—were it not for the availability of oral history procedure. This is why old people carrying dying traditions are prime oral history subjects. The oral history interview differs significantly from journalistic reportage (in all media) because it functions within a historical perspective. If he so chooses, the oral history subject may seal his words in the oral history archive for any stated time. Furthermore, in dealing with the media, the more famous individuals can be too busy selling themselves to the public to provide the real answers. And the interviewing journalist is often so bent on extracting a hot story that he ignores vital long-range questions with which the historian or sociologist would be concerned.

As an historical musicologist who has specialized in eighteenth-century music, I have studied and written about countless musicians—including many "illustres inconnus"—about whom information could hardly have been more meager. This had led me, naturally, to libraries, archives, memoirs, newspapers, and quite often—frustration. It led me to a concern for the means and methods of gathering evidence—in all periods. It had led to an interest in oral history, to discussions with successful practitioners of it in music such as Thomas Willis and Vivian Perlis, to consultation with Louis M. Starr and Elizabeth B. Mason, director and co-director of the Oral History Office of Columbia University, and to the establishment at the City University of New York of the Project for the Oral History of Music in America, or POHMA.

The Columbia University Oral History Office, which has concentrated on statesmen and writers, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in May of 1978. It has convincingly demonstrated the effectiveness and indispensability of oral history techniques today. For example, in the fifth supplement of the Dictionary of American Biography "sixty percent (of the entries) had to be produced without collections of letters or papers." As this ratio increases, so will the significance of oral history as a means of gathering evidence.

There are subtle distinctions between the nature of traditional documentation and that created by oral history. This can be demonstrated by looking at the case of Mozart, about whom promoters of oral history often say: "How wonderful it would be if we could talk to Mozart via time machine—set at minus 200 years—and tape recorder!" This despite the fact that Mozart is probably the best documented composer before 1800. (Whenever possible, his doting father preserved every note and word his son put down on paper.) The letters, as will be seen in a moment, are of particular importance to history and to our discussion. First, an outline of the kind of documentation we do have, in 1978, about Mozart and his music during his stay in Paris in 1778: 1) the musical works of art written there; 2) the literary sources: his letters of course, other people's letters and memoirs, newspapers, archives, etc.; 3) the iconographical sources, here unfortunately all too few. Using these documents we can create, to a limited extent, a portrait of Parisian musical culture at the precise period when it was intersected by Mozart's presence and music.

We do indeed know a lot about Mozart, and yet so little; so many unanswered questions remain. Were oral history available two hundred years ago, we could learn, for example, what Mozart thought of Parisian musical life and culture in 1778 when, at the age of twenty-two, accompanied by his mother, he visited the French capital in pursuit of fame and fortune. We could also learn what his fellow composers thought of him; what the conductor, the bassoonist, and the concertmaster of the Concert Spirituel, as well as the nobleman, the burgher, and the student in the audience had to say; what his then dying mother could tell us, and why he left Paris so precipitously. Above all, we could learn why he made many of his artistic choices and career decisions.

Wolfgang's many letters are prized among literary sources of any place and time. Why are they so treasured? First, they are informative and accurate, as only first-hand observations can be; there is no intervention or interpretation by another; they are written in the most personal mode, with the fewest motives to distort the truth—since he was communicating mainly with people that he loved and trusted. Second, they are spontaneous: they were written when he had something he wished to say; they communicated wit, word, a stream of consciousness, which almost projects Mozart into the present. Third, they are revelatory: they provide insight into Mozart's mind, creative process, and perception of self. At best, the letters conjure up the private, unconscious, and metaphysical realm.

His letters, in short, represent an intimate self-portrait, a personal chronicle of his life and work, and a kind of inner gyroscope. These are also the special qualities—in task and promise—of oral history. Thus, when thinking of what the letters offer and what one would like to know in addition about Mozart and his music, about his lesser contemporaries and the social, political, and cultural milieu in which they lived, one recognizes more easily the kinds of questions the oral historian should ask today.

Pitfalls are plentiful. Tape recorders can so easily and so unselectively record more than anyone could ever want to know. The vast quantity of trash and trivia that can get stored and transcribed in tape and typescript is frightening. Inept and indiscriminate interviewing by untrained possessors of cassette recorders marching under the banner of oral history can make it difficult if not impossible for serious scholars using oral history techniques to approach the same respondents. Recall and personal evaluation, the foundation of all interviews, provide many opportunities for distortion and inaccuracy. Memory failure—real or contrived—repression, and rationalization are elements which must be taken into account. The oral evidence must be examined for internal consistency, compared with other sources, and where possible, corroborated by follow-up interviews.

POHMA (the Project for the Oral History of Music in America) was created to forestall pitfalls, to provide the planning, the perspective, and the permanently consultable archive that differentiates oral history from the casual interview, to initiate projects and training, to coordinate activities on a national scale, in short, to validate the concept of oral history in music in the same way that the Columbia University project has done in politics and literature.

With the cooperation of other centers of oral history in music throughout the country, POHMA was formally launched during the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Los Angeles, California in 1975. It functions with a combined musicological, sociological, and historical perspective; it is at once a national archive of primary oral sources housed at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, a training workshop, a field-research headquarters, and a bibliographic center. It is a place where transcripts are stored, edited, and indexed (eventually with computer assistance). In its training function, POHMA has sponsored graduate seminars in the oral history of art, music, and literature; it has worked with the Center for Field Research (Earthwatch) by training volunteers to develop a mode for a wide-ranging exploration, through oral history, of urban musical life—a model which can be applied by colleges and universities around the country to their respective cities and communities.

POHMA, founded by the author, is at present directed by two scholars at the CUNY Graduate School: Prof. Howard Brofsky, a musicologist, and Prof. Bernard Rosenberg, a sociologist; the executive research coordinator is Elizabeth Wood, who is the person to contact for advice and assistance in setting up new projects in the oral history of music.

The rich potentials of oral history in music are illustrated by the variety of studies initiated or sponsored by POHMA and carried out by students, faculty, and associates. Among the specific projects now underway are monographs about Roger Sessions and Yip Harburg; retrospective studies (through students and colleagues) of Edgard Varèse and Stefan Wolpe; a focused group-study of women composers in America; genre studies of jazz in our time and the American musical theater; studies of different aspects of musical life such as the urban free-lance musician and audience response to serious music in concert.

Each specific project, although it may have many aspects, usually has a major focus. For example, the Roger Sessions study is concerned mainly with a measure-by-measure examination of his music. The Varèse investigation deals primarily with the nature of the influence he and his music have exerted on other composers. The investigation of the urban free-lance musician has developed a model for a wide-ranging sociologically-oriented study of a group who have chosen an often precarious but sometimes extremely lucrative way of musical life.

The mode of interviewing and the presentation of material vary widely from project to project. As far as published studies go, Studs Terkel's interviews with Yip Harburg and other creatively involved people in Hard Times and Working are examples of in-depth discussions between a master interviewer and his subjects, focusing on how modern life impinges on each individual existence. In his books, Terkel edits himself out of the interviews and lets each person speak in the first person. Robert Jacobson, on the other hand, in his important book of interviews with musical celebrities, Reverberations, intersperses his own comments with those of the musicians.

The Music Makers, by Deena Rosenberg and Bernard Rosenberg, the first specific project initiated and published under the auspices of POHMA (Columbia University Press, 1979) is based on yet another approach. The book presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of serious musical life of our time as seen through the articulate voices of thirty-two key individuals who make music happen in different ways—composers, scholars, teachers, performers, managers, critics, and so on. Their words are distilled from their responses to a carefully orchestrated series of questions—questions designed to reveal basic patterns, divergences, and developments. The Rosenbergs preferred to conduct their interviews together. This usually resulted in a relaxed, three-way conversation in which each interviewer, operating from a different vantage point (sociological and musicological), checked and supplemented each other. This method has been highly successful in other projects and will often avoid the necessity of retakes. In their preparation of the spoken material for publication they, like Studs Terkel, have chosen to recast their questions in affirmative language and incorporate them within the subjects' narrative, thereby seeming to remove themselves from the finished product. Having heard and seen the raw tapes and transcripts (which remain available in the POHMA offices), I can attest to the skill and integrity with which they have been edited. This is not a matter of authentic source versus free-wheeling interpretation. Transcribed raw oral data does not always make for easy reading. As long as the sources themselves can be consulted when desired, this type of presentation is eminently valid; it is not the only way, of course, but it is often preferable to finding the interviewer's own questions and lengthy statements forever intruding upon the continuity of the subject's words.

The Music Makers deals with many aspects of the current American musical scene—the place of the contemporary composer; musicians' social and geographic mobility; the celebrity syndrome; progress by women, blacks, and other minorities within the music profession; the relationship between European and American musical life; and, more generally, the pressures, frustrations, satisfactions, and dreams of music makers around the country. One important area touched on in some way by everyone in the book is musical training in colleges, universities, and conservatories. Those interviewed compare European and American educational systems, talk about the pros and cons of the university versus the conservatory, and talk of changes in musical education over this century. More specifically, great teachers and their methods are constantly referred to—Roger Sessions, Arnold Schonberg, Walter Piston taught many of the people in The Music Makers. Then, educators as different as Carl Schachter, the music theorist, Michael Steinberg, the critic, Milton Babbitt, the composer, and Julius Levine, the bass player, deplore the separation between theorists, composers, and performers in universities, and stress the need for a more closely knit musical community. Thus, The Music Makers is of great interest to educators around the country for two major reasons: first, for the discussion of a multiplicity of educational issues and second, because it makes use of a relatively new means of investigation, oral history, in ways that could be profitably studied by those interested in researching the musical life of our time.

The world of music has many rooms. No musician—be he singer, scholar, or harpsichord maker—can be isolated in any one of them, nor within his own area of technical expertise. The countless makers of music functioning today are all pushing in many contradictory directions. Their problems are not discrete ones. They operate on many levels and as members of many different pressure groups. And the actions of any one music maker will affect the lives of many individuals and institutions. Thus the decisions of a Michael Tilson Thomas, who must face orchestra, board of directors, critics, management, soloists, radio and television moguls, and audiences, are crucial for thousands; the appointment of a Michael Steinberg to a powerful critic's post in Boston caused widespread reactions and crosscurrents. His resignation to work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra set a whole new series of ripples into motion.

As Adam Smith might have viewed it, what seems like organized chaos, with thousands of individual musical entrepreneurs and institutions working at cross-purposes, causes musical life today—and the economy and culture as a whole—to move forward. No one person can grasp it all, no one can really do much to hold it back or move it ahead. Yet we must strive to grasp how all the parts of musical firmament fit together, for unless we understand something of the whole, we can never really comprehend any of its parts.

1Portions of this essay are taken from the author's foreword to The Music Makers, by Deena Rosenberg and Bernard Rosenberg, Columbia University Press (1979).

2495 Last modified on November 9, 2018