Joseph Kerman, Colorful Critic of Musicology, Dies at 89 Joseph Kerman By Vivien Schweitzer March 25, 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 His death, after a long illness, was confirmed by his daughter, Lucy Kerman. 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.
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Photograph: Kathleen Karn 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. 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 humane discipline along the lines 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 was a waste of time: what counted was finding a deeper understanding of the values and meanings in the music itself.
When young, he used Kerman as a pen-name, and then adopted it officially. In , he 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 particular. By this 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.
Meanwhile, his teaching career flourished. After a spell at Westminster Choir College, in Princeton but part of Rider University , he moved to the University of California, Berkeley, rising to professor in His first book, however, sprang more from his journalism than from his academic work. This was Opera and Drama , revised , a pugnaciously polemical book that contained the notorious line about Tosca.
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 burden 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. During his time there, he published Listening, a primer in western art music for college students written in collaboration with his wife Vivian, whom he had married in In , Kerman 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 But his earlier voice as a critic was not abandoned — it resurfaced in The Beethoven 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 Musicology , was 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. In How We Got Into Analysis, And How to Get Out, he castigated analysis as the latest incarnation of the 19th-century ideology of "organicism": "analysis exists for the purpose of demonstrating organicism, and organicism exists for the purpose of validating a certain body of works of art".
Composers who failed to display organic tendencies in their music were automatically downgraded. 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. 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: indeed, Kerman points to its considerable vitality.
He is survived by another son, Peter, a daughter, Lucy, and a brother, the bassoonist George Zukerman.
Photograph: Kathleen Karn 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. 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 humane discipline along the lines of literary criticism, and he deplored the tendency he noted towards arcane jargon and "scientism" in musicology.
Joseph Kerman, Colorful Critic of Musicology, Dies at 89
He then joined the faculty of University of California, Berkeley where he became a full professor in and was chairman of the music department from to In , he was appointed Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University , a post he held until , when he returned to Berkeley and again became chairman of the music department from until his retirement in For Kerman, the value of an opera as drama is undermined when there is a perceived disconnection between text and music. He maintained an interest in the English madrigal composer William Byrd throughout his career, and wrote several influential monographs on his work. With his wife, Vivian Kerman, he wrote the widely used textbook, Listen,  first published in and now in its 7th edition co-authored by Gary Tomlinson.
Joseph Kerman obituary