Opportunities for Intracultural and Interdisciplinary Study

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This paper was part of a panel presentation for The College Music Society at the University of Toronto on November 7, 1970 entitled
Music and Higher Education in the 1970's. Chairman of the panel was William J. Mitchell. The other panelists were Charles Hamm, Mantle Hood, James Haar, Robert J. Werner, and Neal Zaslaw. Abstracts of the papers they presentedas well as Mitchell's introductory remarkswere also included in Symposium Volume 11.

In the thirty-six years since the American Musicology Society was founded by a small group of gentlemen and one lady, American musicology has diligently tended its own garden. By that I do not mean that it has cultivated American music—that branch of our study is still in the potting shed. I mean rather that musicologists in the United States have narrowly concentrated on the problems of the history and analysis of the classical repertory of European music.

The achievements of North America in this area are impressive. Ten years ago I had the privilege of reporting on these achievements for The Princeton Studies: Humanistic Scholarship in America.1 Since then our scholars have been working intensively, not only on the periods of history that had been most thoroughly researched up to that time, but particularly on those areas I reported as neglected, namely the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

If this shift of interest from the earlier periods to more recent music is a significant development, the character of research has changed little. The focus remains consistently on the musical documents. The search for musical sources, identification of composers and works, editing of music, and the history and description of styles constitute still the areas in which Americans are making their major contributions. Much remains to be done along these lines, particularly for the period after 1600. But the accumulated research has built a base from which to depart on explorations of neighboring territory. I believe the 1970's should see us moving from collection and description toward explanation, from asking what is there to asking why it is there. I do not mean "why" in an ethical or metaphysical sense, but why did this happen rather than something else.

As soon as you ask this question you must leave the comfortable and familiar precincts of the music library, with its collection of scores, histories of music, and commentaries on music, its microfilms of musical manuscripts, and the rest, to make deep forays into neighboring disciplines, into social and regional history, into history of ideas, science, and technology, into the study of cultural institutions and total cultures and all levels of musical and artistic expression within them.

Interdisciplinary studies have been more characteristic of French and German musicology than our own. A number of practitioners who pretended to possess universal culture gave this approach a bad name. Too often they aimed to define a Weltanschauung and then to discover its symptoms in musical culture. Much of the literature touching on music of an interdisciplinary character tries to tell us how the development of music fits into the Renaissance or into the quadrivium or to apply categories of history of art or general history to music. This is a reversal of scientific method. Rather we should begin, as do scientists, with concrete phenomena and problems and seek to explain them. This will almost always require multidisciplinary means.

Let me cite an example. Musica ficta is on the surface a practical musical problem, and it has been treated largely in these terms. But the origin of the problem can be explained by factors that are quite separate from musical practice. To a large extent it arose because the tetrachordal system of Greek theory originally intended for monophonic music was taken over to explain a gamut utilized for polyphonic music. Why the musical pedagogues of the middle ages and Renaissance held fast to an obsolete tonal system can be explained better by cultural history than by musical examples. At the other end of the chronological spectrum the decline of the practice of musica ficta resulted from the changing relationship of European men of letters to Greek thought and learning, by developments in mathematics, science, and technology.

The tendency to confine one's attention to the musical facts is not merely an American phenomenon. I recall the reaction I provoked at a panel of the International Musicological Society entitled "Relations between Religious and Secular Music in the Sixteenth Century" in 1961 when I suggested that the key to this relationship was not so much the exchange of techniques, tunes, and structural features between secular and sacred music as the deep penetration of humanistic secular thought into every aspect of artistic thought and action. One of our Dutch colleagues swept aside my citation of the opinions of an influential humanist cardinal with the retort that music history is made by musicians and composers and not humanist cardinals. Whereupon the international panel returned to swapping cases of parody and tune-borrowing.

If we accept the challenge of explanation, a whole new world of problems loom ahead. Why, for example, have important stylistic changes occurred where they did: why Paris in the twelfth century, why Florence in the 1590's, why Rome in the 1630's, why Paris in the 1760's, and so on. The answers to such questions, or at least hypotheses upon them, will emerge from in-depth, disciplinarily unbounded study of individual events, important single compositions or groups of them, individual key figures, and from the reconstruction of the total culture of certain places at certain times. There are a number of such studies already completed, and more on the way. I look to the 70's for a strong push in this direction.

There is another side to the multidisciplinary attack, that of methodology. It has been frequently noted that as music historians and theorists we have hardly begun to tap ways of looking at problems and solving them that have been developed in ethnomusicology, linguistics, sociology, computer-science, information science, logic, and other fields that have been on the frontier.

These observations have implications for higher education in music. Obviously we cannot all teach everything to everybody. Our institutions must diversify and specialize in certain multidisciplinary directions. Rather than promulgating uniform or minimum standards or guidelines for advanced music study, the AMS and CMS should serve as agents for diversification and coordination of the diverse programs. We should read each other's catalogs not to copy them but to avoid doing what is done better elsewhere. University departments of music should be as little alike as possible; then students would truly have a choice. We should aim not to make students uniformly competent in musicology but diverse in their competence. Someone who is specializing in the history of music theory need not be able to write down African drum rhythms any more than the specialist in Black American music needs to be skilled at realizing a thoroughbass in Baroque style. Neither probably needs to know the liturgies of the saints. Perhaps each should have done some basic exercises in all these at some time, and certainly all should possess sound musicianship, but each scholar can hardly be accountable for the many subfields that have proliferated over these thirty-six years of the AMS. Perhaps the most important area that my two hypothetical students would have in common is that of physical and psychological acoustics. Yet there are very few institutions where you can study this. Otherwise the historian of theory should study history of philosophy, science and mathematics, while the historian of Black American music needs anthropology, sociology, comparative linguistics, and psychology.

Not every university can provide a particular combination of disciplines. But every university can honestly examine its strengths and come up with a program that is, if not unique, at least true to its character.


1Frank Ll. Harrison, Mantle Hood, and Claude V. Palisca, Musicology (Englewood Cliffs 1963).

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