Strange Bedfellows

Jonathan Bellman

Quite by accident I find myself listed in the Wikipedia New Musicology Article as a New Musicologist. This stopped me dead in my tracks. Moi? After the amount of sounding off I’ve done about it? Wikipedia, noch?


New Musicology was for a long time a label used both as proud, confrontational self-identification and vilifying accusation. This started, roughly, when I was at a very vulnerable point in my professional life: on the job market. Old Musicologists were considered to be, by outsiders, crabbed, unmusical pedants who Controlled The Whole Field and did nothing but root in archives, grazing passively amongst Ockeghem manuscripts, Tudor choirbooks, and Beethoven sketches. Supposedly, they considered themselves to be the Only True Musicologists. New Musicologists, in contrast, trumpeted their interest in all kinds of new methodologies (of varying value, and which I will not critique here), and in the Voices Of The Marginalized: Gays, Minorities, Women, etc. In the late 1980s and 1990s, I and many others believed that the job market was largely controlled by fashionable NM interests, which was cause for great personal bitterness. (It would be disingenuous to act as if some of that resentment didn’t survive into my Sept. 18, 2006 Radical Musicology blog.) Young people associated with this area, by contrast, were of the opinion that their views were being repressed by the Entrenched Powers of Old Musicology, The Man and so on, and they cited—with some justification, probably—departments that would never hire women, that were bastions of the musicological old-boy network…basically, that were everything they were trying to correct. “Balkanized” best describes the situation.


Into the field blundered yours truly, trailing a DMA in Piano Performance Practices and (among other things) an interest in musical exoticism, specifically the style hongrois, the Hungarian-Gypsy style of Schubert and Brahms and many others. In some ways I came in on the ground floor, being one of the first to outline the dialect in terms of its constituent musical gestures, and to map out the sociology of “hearing Gypsies,” including Europe’s wretched treatment of Roma and the idea of using Romani musical accent, so to speak, in formal compositions as a way of getting beyond typical musical discourses of the nineteenth century. It is not hard to see how the connection between my work and New Musicology was made, but my lineage was really neither Old nor New Musicology: as a student of Leonard Ratner, I was really interested in musical styles and topics, and my interest in the style hongrois proceeded from that more than any outsider’s awareness. (I had some good models, such as Thomas Bauman—also at Stanford then—with his treatment of the “Turkish” style in his terrific Cambridge Opera volume on Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio.) The fact that I have not been very sympathetic to post-colonial musicology, which is one of the places musical exoticism led, has been cause for some pretty harsh criticism, particularly in the UK. So being lumped in with some who have—well—pilloried me leaves me a bit bemused.


What this illustrates above all is the idiocy of labels, which we tend to wear much the same way mobs in banana republics wear pictures of military leaders. “I’m with the X group; don’t mess with us.” Is that really, truly, the best we can do, particularly in the intellectual realm? Today (older, and having negotiated the professional rapids to the point of being senior faculty) the labels Old Musicology and New Musicology seem a bit embarrassing, inidicative of a kind of mindless, grade-school, red-team vs. blue-team tribalism. “Old” and “New” as unavoidably values-laden adjectives is reminiscent of Liberal and Conservative. For example, as a political liberal (not so much “left” or “progressive,” really: LIBERAL) I am in a constant state of boiling rage because of the way W, Bill O’Reilly, James Dobson and other Republican Administration, Media, and Church Death-Eaters have hijacked and distorted the term. I am old enough, however, to remember when (at least in the worldview of a Eugene McCarthy-supporting 10-year-old) “Conservative” meant essentially a snaggle-toothed, 60-IQ Southerner cackling at a lynching. How different are those kinds of stereotyping and intellectual laziness, really? We’re liberals, but like most liberals I’ve known our family is conservative (whatever that means) in many ways—sociologically, educationally, economically. The labels persist nonetheless. It seems that as a species, we are hell-bent on convincing other life-forms (should they exist) that we have the mental (and moral) capabilities of plankton. Is there really no other possible model for anything than a binarism? (Guest-lecturing at Stanford, Leo Treitler once suggested, in answer to a question, that we ought to “eschew binarism,” but I’ve never noticed anyone taking him up on this point.)


I hope the authors of the Wikipedia article keep me there as a New Musicologist, if they feel some of my work qualifies me for that designation. Anyone who knows me or my other writing (or my AMS-L posts or this blog) will be puzzled, probably, by that inclusion. Fact is, I would rather not fit snugly into anyone’s category of anything, preferring to sort of fit into several. I think it was LBJ who said “If two men agree on everything, only one of ’em’s doing the thinking,” and that holds true for intellectual categories; a comfortable fit makes you easy to pigeonhole. Being a rank-and-file, card-carrying member of ANYTHING should always be regarded with the greatest suspicion, because the easier your beliefs are to categorize, the easier they are to appropriate and distort.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Strange Bedfellows

  1. Robin Wallace says:

    I’ve tried numerous times on the AMS-list to argue that binary, either/or thinking is counterproductive, and usually somebody writes in to say that I’m trying to repeal the principle of contradiction. Apparently trying to repeal the principle of contradiction is itself seen as a characteristic of postmodern, new musicological thinking. There are those who want to repeal the principle of contradiction and those who don’t want to repeal the principle of contradiction. Seems you can’t win at this game.

  2. Bob Judd says:

    The nice thing about Wikipedia is that you can always check the history page to see what happened. In your case, Myke Cuthbert added your name (and others) in a cleanup of the article on 13 March 2007.
    I (somewhat whimsically, I admit) attempted just now to add an article for you. It was *speedily* quashed (within two minutes of my posting it) by an admin there, who seemed to think you were not worthy of a separate article. I tried tidying up, and asked Myke (who proposed it in the first place) to help out with a bit more meat. Maybe other readers here would be interested in helping the wikipedians come to a better understanding of the notability of JB.

  3. Jonathan says:

    [Mental system crash]

  4. Ed Nixon says:

    My first attempt at graduate school was in Musicology at Syracuse University in 1968. I was defeated by a number of assaults, the most significant being personal probably but the most memorable being the Democratic convention in Chicago and the nightly announcement on network TV: “It’s 11 o’clock; do you know where your children are?” Being prairie bred Canadian, I found both of these phenomena to be imponderables.
    Now, ironically, after a long ago 10-year career as a professional musician, I find myself with a cochlear implant (a second to come in late fall) and here.
    Aside from the obvious connections, I can cite a very rich body of photographic work on the Roma — particularly that of Josef Koudelka (
    And a suggestion to look at John R. Searle’s “The Construction of Social Reality” with regard to labels, plankton and principles of contradiction (aka, dialectics?).
    I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I accepted admittance to Stanford rather than Syracuse. I would have been farther away from Chicago certainly, closer to the sun and Pacific Ocean, but also farther away from Toronto where I ultimately make my stand. Time’s arrow flies in mysterious ways, but always with the same destination.

  5. Actually, just to clarify something Bob said, I didn’t add Jonathan (or anyone) to the New Musicology article. I just did some rearranging at some point so if you go to the history ( )
    it looks like I deleted a lot of the article and added a lot, but really I just moved a few paragraphs that an anonymous contributor had added.
    The only somewhat subversive thing I have done regarding the New Musicology and Wikipedia was in rewriting the Musicology article. I wanted to discuss New Musicology within the context of “historical musicology,” and I found that extremely difficult to do unless ethnomusicology had already been discussed earlier. So, until it was changed by others, ethnomusicology was listed before historical.
    This of course led to the charge that I was anti-traditional, historical musicology. A somewhat hilarious branding for someone just finishing a dissertation of fourteenth-century manuscript fragments! Best, MSC

  6. Greg says:

    Prof Bellman, you ARE the victim of the month!

  7. Jonathan says:

    Just a month? And the month’s almost over…

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