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