The questions explored at the session on “Public Musicology” during the American Musicological Society's recent meeting in Pittsburgh were hardly new. At least in the United States, we musicologists have had to sell our discipline to skeptics, or at least explain exactly what it is we do. Charles Seeger, who taught the first course in musicology at Berkeley in 1916, later recalled, “the head of the department of music in one of the greatest of our universities wrote to me in 1917: ‘Our faculty has discussed musicology and we do not think much of it.’” In the aftermath of World War I, many in the general public doubted that it was possible to write about music at all. Henry Blackman Sell of the Chicago Daily News complained of “the tangled sobriety” of most books on music, and
H. L. Mencken referred to “the fewness of [books on music] and the intolerable dullness of that few.” Carl Engel wondered in the Musical Quarterly if a perfectly good word such as “music” could be susceptible to “-ologizing” without coming off as pretentious.
As musicology was getting off the ground in the United States, it became increasingly necessary to clarify its priorities. In the fall of 1939, days after Hitler invaded Poland, an International Congress of the American Musicological Society took place in New York City, an event that was surely a source of pride for the fledgling organization.
Throughout the 1939 meeting, Smith and his colleagues offered a remarkably ecumenical vision of musicology. The six-day event featured presentations on topics within musicology’s traditional purview, including Renaissance polyphony, monody, and ancient Greek music. But what would shortly be known in the United States as ethno-musicology (later ethnomusicology) figured as well, as in George Pullen’s discussion of “enemies of folk-music in America” or the exploration of “modal and melodic structure in Anglo-American folk-music” by Annabel Morris Buchanan, the sole female presenter. Presenters also addressed music and science and music’s relationship to that then-controversial medium, radio. In his paper “Music and Government: Field for An Applied Musicology,” Seeger described to his colleagues the 68,000 4-H Clubs and 42,000 Home Demonstration Clubs supervised by the Department of Agriculture, all involving “part-time music activities” in which 2,000,000 members could participate. Musicology, he argued, was poised to document these activities, arrive at a “value theory,” and even predict musical behavior.
In a conspicuous foreshadowing of presenters Skyping in, composer Randall Thompson addressed the attendees in a radio broadcast from Boston. His topic? The need for musicology in U.S. musical life.
The press seemed to find musicology compelling enough. Several New York dailies reported on the event, relishing not only the congress’s musical activities but also covering the dinner of a group of delegates at the Brazilian pavilion, one of the architectural gems of the 1939 World’s Fair, launched the previous April. In Musical America, a young critic named Gilbert Chase dwelt on the live music that resounded throughout the congress—including in the papers by Dragan Plamenac and Knud Jeppesen (on sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Dalmatian music and Venetian folksongs of the Renaissance respectively), during which an ensemble known as The Madrigalists performed the musical examples. Six concerts took place throughout the city, including at the Cloisters and the auditorium of the New York Historical Society.
Both scholars and the general public were thus exposed to a wealth of unfamiliar music: Ambrosian chant, psalmody, songs by Alexander Reinagle, and unpublished works by Handel. President Smith himself played the flute part in Arthur Foote’s A Night Piece with the Roth String Quartet in the opening concert. In short, readers were given to understand that musicology was not confined to archives and libraries but was a living and breathing enterprise, a dynamic line of inquiry that embraces past, present, and future while enlightening the non-specialist public.
Another example of what is nowadays called “outreach” emerges in the conference proceedings: the fact that they were published at all was thanks to a subvention from the Music Educators National Conference (MENC), which occasionally collaborated with musicology during World War II but which has had little to do with the discipline since. Private and public entities also provided resources, such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), the latter helping to bring delegates from Latin America to the conference.
How did musicology, so broadly defined in 1939, change to the point that we now feel compelled to distinguish “public musicology” from . . . what? Some other kind of musicology? Program notes, pre-concert talks, writing articles and blogs for lay audiences may well be the forms of public musicology most familiar to us. But curating, government work, archival work, and oral history are other possibilities that greet those trained in our discipline. Do we need a theoretical underpinning to pursue these interests? Have our activities become constricted over the years—frozen in the academy, as it were—or have they expanded, even in these challenging economic times? These questions, by no means resolved, carry as many practical implications for careers and allocation of energies as they did in the 1930s.
Excerpted in part from the inaugural issue of the recently resuscitated Revista de Musicología, projected for 2012 but which appeared in September 2013. Carol A. Hess, “‘De aspecto inglés pero de alma española’: Gilbert Chase, Spain, and Musicology in the United States.” Revista de Musicología 35, no. 2 (2012): 263–96.