Thursday, March 27, 2014


by D. Kern Holoman

Joseph Kerman at 60
Just before his 60th birthday, after Andrew Porter had (yet again) cited Opera as Drama in that week's New Yorker, I asked Joe what it what it was like to be so remembered, so notorious, for what amounted to one's opening salvo—and for three words of that salvo, no less. He shrugged and said “I haven't really thought that much about Puccini since then: other things to do.”

(Opera as Drama appeared in 1956 and has been in one or another form of print ever since. A 50th-anniversary edition was published by the University of California Press in 2006.)

We had moved to California in 1973, and I suppose stayed here in part because of Joe and Vivian, who had welcomed us from the first and who were the patina on those early years of discovering an unknown land. For two decades we talked or corresponded—toward the end, e-mailed—almost every day, mostly about 19th-Century Music, the journal we founded together with Robert Winter in 1977.

In the introduction to Essays for Joseph Kerman (19th-Century Music 7/3, a double issue published on April 3, 1984—his birthday), I tried to evoke the merry circumstances of the magazine's birth and something of the power of his pen. He was, as noted elsewhere on this site, the brains behind the original “Dear Abbé,” and a certain amount of Writing about Music (3rd edn. 2014, first published 1988 for the tenth anniversary of the magazine).

19th-Century Music founders
DKH, JK, Cynthia Bates (ed. asst.), RW
For “Joseph Kerman: Bibliography” (pp. 192–98 of the Kermanschrift) I found and read everything he had written until then. Nothing was more formative to my own developing ideas of mission and strategy than reading all those pieces in a row. At the Press and the magazine, and in his inner circle (Vivian, Gary Tomlinson, Walter Frisch), we pushed Joe toward an anthology of what he thought his best writings, and the result was the fine volume Write All These Down (1994). It begins with his famous pieces “A Profile for American Musicology” (1965) and “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out” (1980).

I chose his textbook, Listen (1972), for my first large-lecture class in 1975—largely for its gripping treatment of “Wotan's Farewell,” and the one-line score thereof—and used it, for nearly two decades, as we built the course into our campus's foundational curriculum. The inevitable result was a textbook of my own: I reveled in the notion of meeting JK on the field of commerce, though knew in advance the certain outcome. The close of Masterworks (1998, still going in its e-version), was meant as a salute to the Kerman style: “Art, properly done, will sustain you, challenge you, comfort you. And it may show you a path. Listen to it.”

Joe has at a typescript
Meanwhile there had come The Masses and Motets of William Byrd (1980) and the great Beethoven article with Alan Tyson, published in book form as The New Grove Beethoven (1983). Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (1985) was the last of his works I was able to study in its genesis and execution. He began to be the guru of the “New Musicology,” of which I thought I might disapprove, and I became more consumed by conducting and administration and things French. Still his work kept coming out, each new book drawing us again to the canon: the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, published as Concerto Conversations (1999), The Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 17151750 (2005), Opera and the Morbidity of Music (2008).

Joe relished being a shocker himself, now and then. You saw it in his titles—“How We Got into Analysis,” “Taking the Fifth”—and in the pleasure he took in shaking things up in general and the zinger in particular. When he was on the verge of retirement, we hosted an afternoon symposium in Davis on critics and criticism, with Joe and David Cairns and Richard Swift and maybe Michael Steinberg. In the Q&A I asked him what he was looking forward to most about retirement, to which he replied, without pause, “not going to concerts.” 

You simply didn't know what to think, and by the time you did, he was off on his compelling list of reasons why sitting in tidy rows to worship the Great Masters in silence had to change. And he was right, or pretty close to it.

I had already decided that the concept of finding one's voice would end this short essay when I re-read the preface to Write all These Down, where Kerman on Kerman says it all. His first voice, that of the Hudson Review and Opera as Drama, “was descriptive and evaluative, often enthusiastic and often judgmental. After the mid-1950s my work was addressed less to the Hudson Review readership and more to musicologists (and, one always hopes, to practical, performing musicians).

The need to speak technically—that is, in close detail—about music began to seem a more urgent matter than the intellectual and artistic common ground that I felt (or vaguely imagined) I shared with the Hudson readerships. I was also experiencing more and more difficulty coping with contemporary music—music past Elliott Carter—and felt as a result more and more uncomfortable with my stance as a critic. …

The scholarly voice cultivated after around 1960 was not a new voice—it had already been used for a dissertation and an AMS paper, inter alia—but it was now heard more often. The mode was descriptive, objective, and measured. ...

One cannot define criticism; one must be content with exemplifying it—bearing witness, as it were—and, sometimes, writing around it.

Professing, one might say. The memory of Joe that rings truest is that of his voice—rich-hued in sound, grand in the manner of Charles Rosen, gentle as Michael Steinberg. It is at once musical and musicianly: commanding, compelling, and comforting. Transfiguring. Listen to it.

D. Kern Holoman is curator of Musicology Now and was a co-founder, with Joseph Kerman and Robert Winter, of 19th-Century Music, which continues to be published by the University of California Press and to maintain an office on the Davis campus.

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