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exhibit poster
Histories of Music
Extended through September 2011

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In 2004, the Gilmore Music Library presented an exhibit entitled Theorica Musicae: Selected Treasures from the Music Theory Collections. Seven years later, we turn our attention to a different form of music scholarship: music history. Although it is now practiced by thousands of scholars, for centuries the formal study of music history scarcely existed at all. From the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance—a span of two millennia—most authors who wrote about music focused not in its history, but on its theory: scales, modes, tuning systems, counterpoint, harmony, and so on. Many theory treatises included a few colorful anecdotes about music among the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, but such stories, which usually sought to illustrate the extraordinary power of music in human society, were more legendary than historical. Some theorists, however, did offer factual material about more recent music and musicians, and our exhibit features one of the most notable examples, Heinrich Glarean’s Dodekachordon, published in 1547.

In the next century, a number of other authors (such as Michael Praetorius and Athanasius Kircher) wrote broad-based studies of music that included a historical component, but it was not until Wolfgang Caspar Printz’s Historische Beschreibung der edelen Sing- und Kling-Kunst (1690) that we encounter a book that is primarily a history of music. In the 1770s, two Englishmen, John Hawkins and Charles Burney, produced rival multivolume works, both of them entitled A General History. These studies and their successors signaled a new era of perpetually increasing historical consciousness, marked not only by scholarly research, but also by a concert repertory that included music of the past as well as the present.

By the 19th century, new historical works—both general histories and more specialized studies—were appearing regularly. Their authors approached the history of music from a variety of angles. Some understood it as an ascent from primitive beginnings to the perfection of their own era, while others believed that music had reached its zenith at some glorious point in the past, only to lapse into a sad decline. Still others discerned cyclic patterns, such as an oscillation between the classic and the romantic. In many cases, nationalism provided an important motivation for research, as scholars sought to demonstrate the greatness of their country’s musical heritage, and sometimes to disparage that of their rivals. Many historians portrayed history as a record of the achievements of a series of great men, and some produced book-length studies of individual musicians. John Mainwaring’s biography of Handel pioneered the genre as early as 1760, but he had many successors in the 19th century, including Johann Nicolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach, Georg Nikolaus Nissen’s of Mozart, and Giuseppe Baini’s of Palestrina. Other scholars devoted their efforts to compiling encyclopedias (such as George Grove’s famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians) or thematic catalogues, or editing composers’ complete works.

Until surprisingly recently, most music historians were not trained academics; they also pursued careers in musical performance, journalism, or other fields. By the early 20th century, American universities did have music departments, but their faculties rarely included music historians. At Yale, the task of teaching music history fell to the Dean, Horatio Parker, whose expertise lay in composition rather than scholarship. If we may judge by the lecture notes found in his papers, the eventual arrival of trained music historians came not a moment too soon.

In the 20th century, music history (or “musicology,” as it often came to be labeled) became increasingly professionalized, a trend that began in Germany and later spread to the United States and other countries. University music departments finally began to hire musicologists, and many of them created doctoral programs to train the future generations of scholars. Professional associations were established, and academic journals and monographs appeared in ever larger numbers. The Musical Quarterly began publication in 1915, and its inaugural issue featured an editorial entitled “On Behalf of Musicology.” The American Musicological Society was founded in 1934, and launched its own journal fourteen years later. The profession’s growth was especially dramatic in the decades following World War II, when universities expanded rapidly. Since the 1970s, though, it has struggled with a chronically weak job market and erratic funding, as well as the perpetual challenge of persuading an often skeptical public of the value of music history. In the past two decades, musicologists have broadened the scope of their research, with many addressing the histories of popular music, women in music, and a wide variety of other areas that their predecessors had largely ignored.

Today there are too many distinguished music historians—a number of them at Yale—for us to present even a small sampling of their works. Instead, we have chosen to conclude our exhibit by highlighting the leading textbook of the last fifty years: Donald Jay Grout’s A History of Western Music. Over the course of its eight editions (revised first by Claude V. Palisca and later by J. Peter Burkholder), HWM has developed into a small industry, one that includes anthologies of scores and recordings, workbooks, instructors’ guides, web sites, condensed editions, and translations into numerous languages. Palisca (1921–2001) taught at Yale from 1959 to 1992, and his papers reveal much about the development of HWM, a book that has helped shape the thinking of generations of music students—and future musicologists.

—Richard Boursy, Archivist

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Exhibit by Richard Boursy.

Web design by Rémi Castonguay.

Poster design by Niloufer Moochhala

Special thanks to Rémi Castonguay, Emily Ferrigno, Eva Heater, Elizabeth Keitel, Suzanne Lovejoy, Niloufer Moochhala, Kristy Swift, and SML Access Services for their help with this exhibit.