H. Wiley Hitchcock: Changing History

Musicology's Mandate

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of the larger field of musicology, and you have served as president of the American Musicological Society, it was nice to hear that Grove chose a lot of American writers, not just to write about American music but also to write about major composers of “foreign” music as well. There’s a fear perhaps that as an American you get typecast as “that’s the person who can write about American music.” I’ve certainly heard conductors say, “I’m afraid of programming too much American music because then I’ll only get hired to do the concerts with American music.” So what is the responsibility, in your opinion, of American musicologists toward American music vis-à-vis the larger field of music history internationally?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Well, there, Frank, you’re asking me to suggest an ethical mandate, and I’m unwilling to do that. I think that the increase in interest on the part of American musicologists in American music is remarkable. I’m talking about the last 25 years or so. The increase has been immense and now you’re finding it even in the pages of that august journal, The Journal of the American Musicological Society. Ta-da! You’re finding articles on American music of all kinds and by all kinds of authors. One thinks of not just the likes of Richard Crawford, who’s been a pure Americanist, musicologically speaking, forever and nothing else, but you find musicologists like Chris Reynolds, who’s a Beethovenian and also a Renaissance music scholar: he is now working on an edition of some American choral music for MUSA, the Music of the USA series of critical editions. Charles Hamm, first recognized as a leading scholar of Guillaume Dufay‘s 15th-century music, has turned to major research on American popular song. You’re finding other musicologists also who paid their musicological dues, as I spoke of myself having done, as scholars of European music, turning to American music—and not just as a relief, necessarily, but as something worth studying musicologically speaking. So I don’t think it’s a matter of responsibility, it’s a matter of receptivity, by the musicological establishment, which has been created by a whole bunch of things, such as the publication of the American Grove Dictionary, the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College, which I founded in 1971, and the Society for American Music begun in 1974 as the Sonneck Society (after Oscar Sonneck, the first important chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, and writer of a lot about American music). There have been all of these things to encourage the musicologists to say, “Hey, hey! Look!”

FRANK J. OTERI: You made an issue in the introduction to your book, that popular music very much needs to be taken as a part of our history. Jazz gets in there quite a bit, although jazz really isn’t really popular music anymore.

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: No.

FRANK J. OTERI: And rock is slowly morphing into its own separate sub-genre of music, now that we’re in a sort of a post-rock world. This is another ethical question I guess, is there any music not worth studying at all? Is there anything we can ignore as a part of our history?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Any music, if one gets interested in it, is worth taking very seriously, not only emotionally but intellectually and significantly as a part of life. It’s a matter of being interested in sound and music, and in the experiencing of sound as something other than a signal for action (like a siren, for instance). For me, no music that I can imagine is unworthy of attention. Whether it mandates attention by everyone is another matter.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you have to love it to write about it?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: I should hope so!

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