Joseph Kerman, 89, Iconoclastic Modernizer of Musicology

By Schweitzer, Vivien | International New York Times, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Joseph Kerman, 89, Iconoclastic Modernizer of Musicology


Schweitzer, Vivien, International New York Times


A professor who disliked what he saw as the intellectual isolation of musicology and encouraged a more multidisciplinary approach.

Joseph Kerman, an eminent musicologist and critic who modernized a field he had found insular and stagnant, challenging conventional wisdom with colorful, pungent prose, died on March 17 in Berkeley, Calif. He was 89.

His death, after a long illness, was confirmed by his daughter, Lucy Kerman.

Mr. Kerman, the author of a number of admired books and essays, disliked what he saw as the intellectual isolation of musicology and encouraged a more multidisciplinary approach.

In 1985, for example, he noted that feminist criticism, an integral part of film, literary and art studies, was largely absent from musicology.

Among Mr. Kerman's most important books was "Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology" (1985), in which he wrote: "Critical thought in music lags conceptually far behind that in the other arts. In fact nearly all musical thinkers travel at a respectful distance behind the latest chariots (or bandwagons) of intellectual life in general." Nonetheless, he concluded, "I end this book with hopes for motion."

Mr. Kerman expressed his often contentious opinions vividly. He described Puccini's "Tosca" as "a shabby little shocker." Writing about Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1997, he wrote, "Now nearly 100 years old, Rach 3's life expectancy goes up every year, and given the wonders of bioscience, the piece is likely to end up in some dismaying retirement community of the 22nd century, toothless, creaky, scarcely ecstatic, but still ready to play and above all garrulous."

Richard Taruskin, a prominent musicologist, described Mr. Kerman, a friend and colleague, as a role model. "When you are polemical, you can go two ways," Mr. Taruskin said in a phone interview. "You can find yourself influential, or you can find yourself marginalized. When he first started stirring the pot, people said he was done for, but people listened."

Mr. Kerman's catalog also included "The Beethoven Quartets" (1967), "Concerto Conversations" (1999) and "Listen," a widely used music history and appreciation textbook, which he wrote with his wife, Vivian Kerman. Published in 1972, it has been revised seven times.

One of his most provocative books was "Opera as Drama" (1956), in which he dismissed "Tosca."

In writing about opera he sometimes made predictions that were not borne out -- that Puccini's "Turandot" and Strauss's "Salome" would disappear from the repertory, for example. …

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