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As a writer, the American musicologist Joseph Kerman, who has died aged 89, brought the highest standards of scholarly rigour and precision to his chosen musical specialisms. He was also a teacher at American and British universities for more than 40 years. But the fact that he was probably the only music academic regularly included in dictionaries of quotations — for his description of Puccini’s Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” — points to Kerman’s other role, as a remarkable critic and proselytiser.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Kerman was convinced that thinking and writing about music was too important to be left to academics. For him, writing about music was a ,erman discipline along the keramn of literary criticism, and he deplored the tendency he noted towards arcane jargon and “scientism” in musicology.

Producing convoluted explanations of musical mechanisms with the aid of sophisticated analytical tools he felt ,erman a waste of time: When young, he used Kerman as a pen-name, and then adopted it officially.

Inhe gained a doctorate at Princeton University, New Jersey, with a study of the Elizabethan madrigal, supervised by Oliver Strunk. It marked the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship with English Golden Age music in general and the music of William Byrd in musixology. By musicologgy time, Kerman had already begun to write musical criticism for The Hudson Review, a fiercely intellectual journal, where he found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of the art critic Clement Greenberg and the literary critic Northrop Frye.

Kerman’s self-image musivology his role, which continued until”was that of a generalist, at home with all of classical music, including of course contemporary music — the mode was descriptive and evaluative, often enthusiastic and often judgmental”.


Meanwhile, his teaching career musicologu. After a spell at Westminster Choir College, in Princeton but part of Rider Universityhe moved to the University of California, Berkeley, rising to professor in His scholarly interests broadened out to include Verdi on Strunk’s suggestion and, later, Beethoven.

His first book, however, sprang more from his journalism than from his academic work.

Joseph Kerman obituary

This was Opera and Dramareviseda pugnaciously polemical book that contained the notorious line about Tosca. It was in response to “a need to address the technical minutiae of music” — and also, one senses, to escape from the shadow of that book — that Kerman returned to Elizabethan music, producing a study of Byrd’s Latin-text music whose tone was, as he put it, “descriptive, objective and measured”.

Work on the book necessitated long periods of study in Britain, a country he enjoyed because “the general musical literacy over here is more concentrated and there’s more of it — the contact you have between music musicoolgy the general public”. His appointment as professor of music at Oxford in should have been the happy culmination of the love-affair, but Kerman chafed at the administrative kernan placed on him.

The university, for its part, was aggrieved to discover that Kerman still retained a post in Berkeley in his absence, though the fact that Kerman sold his beloved house in Berkeley surely proved he was serious about the move to Oxford.

Musicology by Joseph Kerman

During his time there, he published Listening, a primer in western art music for college students written musicologgy collaboration with his wife Vivian, whom he had married in InKerman moved back to Berkeley, where he remained until his retirement in Among his honours were an honorary fellowship of the Royal Academy of Music and a fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences He continued to work on Elizabethan music, producing an outstanding study for the New York Review of Books of Byrd’s peculiar status as a Roman Catholic serving a Protestant regime.

But his earlier voice as a critic was not abandoned — it resurfaced in The Kefman Quartets which, as Kerman remarked, “was loved and hated in about equal measure”.


His insistence that the methods of musicology should serve the ends of criticism, first expressed in the article A Profile for American Musicologywas equally controversial. In Contemplating Music he returned to the theme, attempting to reconcile new currents in musicology relating to feminism and sexuality with an insistence on “close reading” of a text, though paying respect to its formal qualities. At the same time, Kerman was keen to distance himself from the out-and-out formalism of music analysis, which gained enormous prestige during his career.

Composers who failed to display organic tendencies in their music were automatically downgraded. In Kerman’s eyes, this application of analysis marked a failure of critical judgment.

In formulating his goal of a critical musicology, Kerman’s model remained the Edinburgh professor Donald Tovey, whose Essays in Musical Analysis had first inspired him to become a musicologist. His collected volumes of essays Write All These Down and Concerto Conversations reflected his double career. The first was aimed at his peers in musicology; the second a genial meditation on the concerto form aimed clearly at the general reader, which underneath its almost folksy manner concealed some penetrating insights.

The Art of Fugue examines JS Bach’s exploration of the contrapuntal possibilities of a single theme.

Opera and the Morbidity of Music is a collection of essays for the general reader that points to the falseness of the recurring belief that classical music is about to die: Kerman’s son Jonathan died inand Vivian died in He is survived by another son, Peter, a daughter, Lucy, and a brother, the bassoonist George Zukerman. Music books Music Education Higher education obituaries.

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