Musicology More Broadly Construed

October 4, 2008

The Greater New York Chapter of the American Musicological Society met today, and I was able to attend the morning session. It gave unmistakable signs of great changes in the discipline of musicology.

While the field has always had its identity problems, few areas of scholarly endeavor can have had so much trouble coming up with a name for what they were doing. When a president of Harvard was told of the plan to institute the study of musicology there, his response was that there was no such thing: “You might as well speak of grandmotherology!”

He had a point. You can’t really take a Latin word like musica and try to mate it with a Greek suffix like ologia. (The only other word in English that I can think of that attempts such m√©salliance is, of all things, the word homosexuality — whose coinage happens to be contemporary with musicology. It’s a barbarism that compounds the etymological problem, since the Greek homo also has an all-too-related Latin meaning that merely confuses the issue.)

Blame the French, not the Americans. (The British sat out the argument for years by simply settling for the non-controversial “musical scholarship” — as though biologists would be content to call themselves “life scholars.” But then the British were also shrewd enough not to pay much attention to the field anyway until they suddenly became whizzes in it and promptly started calling themselves “musicologists.”) It was the French who came up with musicologie, presumably over the dead bodies of the French Academy — who technically cannot possess dead bodies, since they are known there as “the Immortals.”

The Germans, whose term is far neater — thanks to the simple expedient of excluding all non-German verbal elements in such matters — had already come up with their own name: Musikwissenschaft. Americans could have avoided the whole philological problem (and kept from spoiling President Lowell’s morning) by imitating them and adopting “musical science,” a slightly more hard-core term than the typically understated “musical scholarship” of the British, but having the virtue of linguistic probity and of calling a spade a spade.

But back to this morning’s AMS meeting. The pre-lunch discussion was about non-traditional occupations for musicologists, the only “traditional” occupations being those of research and of training other musicologists, who would then do research and train …, etc.

We heard from a noble music librarian, a creative director of a non-profit producer of rare operas, and an impressive magnate of the classical recording industry. The discussion was enlightening and can be summarized by the simple but by no means trivial conclusion that whatever you learned in school, what you learn on the job is barely anticipated before you’re actually there.

I can remember a day when such things could not have been said under the auspices of Musikwissenschaft — though grandmotherology might have been more tolerant.

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