Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

<< Table of Contents



Peter Burkholder
Peter Burkholder
Photo courtesy Indiana University

Musical Worlds of Our Own

by Erika Knudson

The Great Museum was small, but it was very great. Within its cathedral-like space, the sparkling white busts of revered composers loomed on marble pedestals. Wolfgang Amadeus was there, and so was Johann Sebastian. Through the vast, well-lighted clerestory floated the music of angels: the clear polyphonic voices of monks, the baroque intricacies of a magic flute. Although it seems unimaginable to leave this exalted space, there exists another museum in the same city, and this museum is as big as the Great Museum is grand. Here is an iPod spilling out of a backpack on the corner of a gritty bus stop bench, and an opera singer in front of a red velvet curtain, a book of American hymns resting on a pew, a marching band in uniforms with epaulets and gold braid maneuvering over a vast green field, a concert hall filled with people, a smoky jazz club. Wolfgang and Johann Sebastian are here, but so are John Cage, Louis Armstrong, Beverly Sills, and the Beastie Boys. The museum is so big it has no walls, and its music is endless layers of sound, from the beat of the street to Tin Pan Alley to the passionate arias of the opera house.

Think of these museums of the imagination as a metaphor for the paradigm shift that the discipline of musicology has experienced in the last quarter-century. What began as a "Great Museum" curated by those studying the progression of musical genres and styles among a select pantheon of great composers has become "like the Smithsonian, encompassing everything," says Distinguished Professor of Music Peter Burkholder.

Burkholder, who teaches in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, recently rewrote A History of Western Music, the definitive text on the subject. He says musicology has evolved dramatically since he was a student. "The approach established by Guido Adler at the University of Vienna in the early 20th century--how does a genre start, how does the classical style come to be, what are its elements, how does it grow, change, disappear--that was the paradigm when I was trained in the 1970s.

"But that approach leaves a lot out," Burkholder continues. "I don’t think we are throwing that approach out, but adopting a Darwinian model--evolution doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Individual species contend with each other, and what survives reproduces and carries its characteristics to the next generation."

Musicology has always been interdisciplinary, but it has become increasingly so in the last two decades, says Burkholder. "Even Adler and the Germans looked at social, art, religious, and cultural history in their study of music. But for a generation or two, ‘what does music mean?’ was not discussed. It was thought that responses to music were too idiosyncratic to look at ‘meaning.’ When you hear ‘ocean’ in a piece of music, I hear ‘forest.’ Now, that is part of what we’re interested in."

Literary criticism, feminist criticism, semiotics, and cultural studies provide context for many musicologists’ forays into the forests and depths of their discipline. Burkholder notes the work of colleagues such as Jane Fulcher, an IU professor of musicology whose recent book The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France, 1914–1940 considers the political lives of French composers and situates them into the same cultural niche as writers and critics.

Older topics also can be seen in new ways, says Burkholder. For example, he says, Daniel Melamed, an IU associate professor of music, is investigating the historical impact of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, tracing the way pieces were performed in the composer’s time and how modern presentations differ. Melamed’s work explores matters of performing practice, what happens when multiple versions of a piece of music survive, and how we decide exactly who composed a piece.

Or, Burkholder continues, consider the work of musicologists such as Susan McClary and Catherine Clément, who have asked, How are madwomen portrayed in opera? and, Why do all these operas end with the death of a woman? "Though these may be fairly obvious questions, they had not been asked before," says Burkholder. "Such questions can serve as a lever to open up other issues of national identity and social class."

Burkholder’s own research interests include 20th-century music, the American composer Charles Ives, and the concept of musical borrowing. The study of musical borrowing--or how one piece of music gets adapted into a new piece--is quite old, he notes. More than a century ago, scholars of Bach were studying how the composer adapted some of Vivaldi’s concertos as pieces for solo harpsichord. "Part of the impetus for making music is reworking what has come before," Burkholder says. He mentions examples of Gregorian chant showing up in Renaissance music and notes that "borrowing has completely taken over popular music."

Studying popular music "would have been career suicide just 40 years ago," Burkholder notes, but today, Jacobs School of Music graduate students study topics such as rap music and the life of John Philip Sousa for their dissertation projects. "Areas of music that would have been considered beneath notice are now regarded as interesting and worthy of study," Burkholder says.

The continually expanding nature of his chosen field, he says, allows him to ask broader questions that bring the study of music to life. This approach applies to teaching as well as research. In Burkholder’s second year of teaching music history, when he was at the University of Wisconsin, a student asked, "Where is the band music? So many of us spend a lot of time playing band music, why is it never talked about?" Burkholder joked then that musicologists were a "wholly owned subsidiary of the opera houses and symphonies."

But he became unsatisfied with that answer, and he has made band music a topic in his 20th-century music history class. "I don’t have training in the history of band music or jazz, but I invite students to give presentations on these topics so that it becomes part of what we discuss and learn."

The "where is the band music?" question was also relevant when Burkholder tackled rewriting A History of Western Music. "I decided that all these types of music must be treated in the textbook," he says. He began asking: When do wind instruments appear? When do wind ensembles become important? What social roles do band and wind ensemble music fill?

"It turns out that band concerts, which usually include some entertaining light music and some more serious music, are precisely what orchestras used to play," Burkholder says. "So bands have continued the traditional approach to concerts, while orchestras have said they will play ‘only the greats.’"

American music is now seen as a legitimate part of music history, Burkholder says, which is another example of the ways musicology has changed. In his rewrite of the History textbook, Burkholder included American music as part of the overall history, rather than segregating it into a separate chapter.

"American music history can be traced back to at least the 16th century, with Native American music. As soon as the Spanish hit Mexico and Peru, the Jesuits with them worked to convert the Indians, and their main tool of indoctrination was music," he says. "This is the kind of detail that would have been left out of the old, traditional approach to music history.

"On the one hand," he adds, "the expansion of options for research has been exhilarating, on the other it is overwhelming. One’s awareness of one’s ignorance increases as one’s knowledge increases. And there is always more to learn."

Originally a student of composition, Burkholder notes that there are similarities between the evolution of musicology and the development of composition. "Now that musicology is often focused on the meaning of music, or how it embodies social and ideological codes, I’ve noticed that this is also a trend in composition," he says. "Composers are more concerned with creating a meaningful experience, and there is an eclecticism in composition as well as musicology."

In the mid-1970s, says Burkholder, the world of composition was very partisan. "You could be either an avant-garde John Cage type--let’s question what music is--or a Milton Babbitt type--let’s do it scientifically. I was discouraged from being a composer because I felt boxed in by expectations."

Now, the sky is the limit in both composition and musicology, he says. Burkholder declines to predict the future but ventures this assessment: "Music is more with us than ever. We have constant access to music if we want--iPods, radio, stereos. It used to be you had to make music yourself, so there were work songs and the sense of community that went along with singing them in a group. Now, the availability of music means that each of us can become our own musical world."

Erika Knudson is associate director of the IU Office of Creative Services in Bloomington.

Related Articles:

Seeing the Music