H. Wiley Hitchcock: Changing History

Changing Approaches to History

FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the differences between history, journalism, criticism, and advocacy.

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: I find that they’re not all that different. I’ve been a good friend of composers and I’ve also been a good friend of critics. I judge them as I judge historians, testing the accuracy of the factual matter they give us. I welcome them because of their ideas and the creative aspect of their writing, just as I do historians. I recently had the occasion to write a review of Richard Crawford‘s new book called America’s Musical Life, almost 1000 pages of the history of American Music—and I realized that this is a new history. There’s an abbreviated version that will probably replace my own Music in the United States—a successful textbook, now in its fourth edition. Rich’s book is probably going to replace it because it’s a new history: it’s a history for the 21st century. Mine was for the last quarter or third of the 20th century.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what’s so different about it?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Instead of taking composers or pieces of music as the point of departure, Crawford’s book centers on the performance of American music. His concern is with America’s musical life, in terms of the performers of American music, the listeners to American music, the producers and buyers of scores, recordings, and tickets to performances, rather than just the music just itself.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it doesn’t really present a canonical list…

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: No, it doesn’t pretend to do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: So in that sense it probably won’t replace your book, so much as be a nice parallel to it.

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Yes, in a way it’s a complement to my book, which is full of music examples and analytic comments. That’s where I’m at, the music for itself, less than say the sociology of music or biographies of composers, or things like that. I guess I’m oversimplifying by claiming that these various things that you are talking about, even advocacy, are very similar: the critic, the historian, who of course makes a new history every time he or she sets a pen or fingers to paper or computer, and the advocate—who has to advocate, I suppose either in words or in performance, or in some way or other, and thereby makes a selection, and thus suggests a graduated roster of preferences, which the historian does, too, and so does the critic.

FRANK J. OTERI: So then talking about this and what you’re saying about the new history being about performers and consumers, not so much about works, what is the responsibility of the musicologist to music? What is the goal?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Well, if by musicologist you mean primarily the historian…

FRANK J. OTERI: The historian, right.

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: I think my goal as a music historian has been to attempt to reflect the music as it was experienced in its own time, primarily. Also to attempt to reflect what the composer thinks he or she is doing in such-and-such a work and to become, in a sense, a critic myself.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in the preface to the 3rd edition of your American music history, you said that one of the goals in writing the book was to make people aware of our musical history in its totality as opposed to just being a footnote to European musical history.

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: We have this problem in this country when we think of “classical music”—to use that hobgoblin of an expression—as being European music, as not being our own. And the other thing that your book did in your 1st edition which dates back to the late ’60s, probably there weren’t very many precedents for it at that point, was to deal with not just so-called classical music, in that sense, but also to deal with jazz and, I haven’t seen the 1st edition of the book so I don’t know if rock already figures in the 1st edition, but it certainly figures in subsequent editions of the book.

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: OK. But we have to go back historically in a way to 1969 when my book was first published—Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. A Historical, American English. (laughs) Not An historical, no, no! At any rate, at that time, and you’re absolutely right, there were few precedents. But Gilbert Chase had written his book America’s Music in 1955, and I learned a great deal from that book and I credit Gilbert in the introduction of my own book. But, much more than now, American music, to musicologists at least, was sort of a country cousin in the Euro-American tradition. In fact, I don’t even think that term Euro-American music was common; it’s commonplace now because when we think of our music intellectually, let’s say, we think about it, particularly classical music, as part of a tradition that began in Europe and was fed and nurtured by that tradition—but by now has developed way out of it: it’s a world of difference today from what it was thirty-three years ago.

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