Musicologist and prolific writer Joseph Kerman dies at 89

Joseph Kerman, a professor emeritus of music at the University of California, Berkeley, and an award-winning scholar of Western music who often stressed the role of art as a form of communication, died at his Berkeley home on March 17 at the age of 89.

"Listen," a textbook coauthored by Joseph Kerman and his wife, Vivian, is still widely used in music appreciation studies.

“Listen,” a textbook coauthored by Joseph Kerman and his wife, Vivian, is still widely used in music appreciation studies.

Kerman was a pianist, accompanist and music arranger, as well as a prolific writer. His primary fields of interest included Renaissance composer William Byrd and Elizabethan music, Beethoven and opera.

In addition to his extensive academic writings, Kerman wrote music reviews for mainstream publications and educated the public about music through numerous broadcast interviews and public lectures.

Kerman said in a 1965 talk that while science may affect human lives profoundly, scientists don’t need to talk with the ordinary man to do their work. But, he said, the artist, “by the very nature of his enterprise, addresses people who are not artists, and wants their response. Every work of artistic creation is in some sense an appeal, a demand for attention, an effort to speak to other men – to other men who are not artists.”

Kerman was born in London on April 3, 1924, the son of an American journalist. He came to the United States in 1939 to study at New York University (NYU) and earned an A.B. degree summa cum laude in physics in 1943. Next, he attended Princeton University, where he earned an M.F.A. in music in 1948. In 1950, he became the first student at Princeton to receive a Ph.D. in music. His dissertation –   a comparative study of the English and Italian madrigal, under the supervision of famed musicologist Alfred Einstein –became the first monograph published by the American Musicological Society.

He worked as the director of graduate studies for the Westminster Choir College  in New Jersey from 1949-1951, and also became a music critic for the Hudson Review, a journal of literature and the arts, in 1949.

Kerman joined the UC Berkeley music faculty in 1951 as an assistant professor.  He was promoted to associate professor in 1956 and full professor in 1960. Kerman was the acting chair of the Music Department from 1959-1960, and he served as chair from 1961-1964  and from 1991 until his retirement in 1994.

Kerman was appointed Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University in 1971, but returned to UC Berkeley three years later. Kerman held the Charles Eliot Norton Memorial Chair at Harvard University from 1997 to 1998, and presented a series of lectures about giving musical texts and performances a close reading similar to literary study. The lectures were compiled in the publication ”Concerto Conversations.”

Over the course of his academic career, Kerman received numerous honors, including the Holdder Fellowship from Princeton’s Council of Humanities in 1957 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959. He also was a visiting fellow at Oxford, the Society of the Humanities at Cornell University, and at University of Cambridge.

Kerman’s first book was “Opera as Drama” (1956), in which he analyzed what he identified as the best works in the field and said that the best operas stand with the best dramatic products of the modern age. He also said that an opera’s story provides the structure for its music and text. With his wife, Vivian Kerman, he coauthored “Listen,” a textbook widely used in music appreciation studies.

He twice won top honors from the American Musicological Society  with its Kinkeldey Award – first in 1970 for his authoritative study and edition of Beethoven’s famous “Kafka” sketchbook, , and again in 1981 for his book, “The Masses and Motets of William Byrd.“ The AMS praised his Beethoven edition for “meeting the highest demands of scholarship and rendering the sketches readable and enjoyable for everyone, layman, musician and expert.” Kerman’s book on Byrd also won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers and Publishers.

In his 1985 history and critique of traditional musicology, “Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology,” Kerman again focused on the need for communication to counter musicologists’ tendency toward intellectual isolationism. UC Berkeley music professor and former Kerman student Davitt Moroney said the book fundamentally changed the course of graduate studies in historical musicology in the United States and beyond.

Musicologist Joseph Kerman

UC Berkeley musicologist Joseph Kerman

“Write All These Down,” a collection of Kerman’s most influential essays, was published in 1994. His last book, “Opera and the Morbidity of Music” (2008). Moroney described the work as “a luminous account of an eclectic choice of works in which Kerman’s love of the music is matched by the effortless elegance, wit and concision of his prose.”

John H. Roberts, a UC Berkeley professor of music emeritus and former head of the campus’s Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library, said he was one of many aspiring musicologists drawn to UC Berkeley over several decades by Kerman’s brilliant and provocative writing.

“He taught us how to think critically, he showed us how to write with panache –- though few of us would have dared to imitate his distinctive style –- and he launched a national debate about the nature of music scholarship that continues to this day,” said Roberts. “As a teacher, he was fiercely demanding, but also immensely stimulating, witty and wise.”

Kerman was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1972, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1973.

He retired in 1994 and a year later published “Write All These Down,” a compendium of essays he wrote from the 1950s to the early ‘90s.

Kerman’s wife, Vivian, died in 2007. His survivors include a son, Peter, of Albany, Calif.; daughter, Lucy, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.; brother, the bassoonist George Zuckerman of Vancouver, B.C.; and five grandchildren. Another son, Jonathan, died in 1993.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.