Making Music History

More than a decade ago, an editor from W.W. Norton Company asked J. Peter Burkholder '75 for his opinion of the latest edition of A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout. The man from Norton was most likely expecting unqualified praise. After all, the textbook has been a fixture in music history courses for decades, including Burkholder's own courses at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

"I told him that many of my students couldn't read it," Burkholder recalled by telephone from his Bloomington office. "I explained that although the book had served my generation of students very well, it wasn't working as well 20 years later."

Originally published in 1960, the textbook has long dominated the market. But despite the passage of time, the book had never been thoroughly overhauled in terms of form or content. Burkholder knew from his years of classroom experience that it wasn't serving students as well as it could.

Burkholder gave the Norton editor a copy of the study questions he had written to help his students use Grout's text.  Soon he was engaged to author a study guide to accompany the 1996 edition of the book.  And after both Grout and his coauthor Claude V. Palisca had passed away, Norton asked Burkholder to prepare a detailed critique of how A History of Western Music ought to be made better, and then commissioned him to write the next edition himself.

He prepared the 7th edition of the celebrated tome, a 960-page behemoth of which about 55% is brand new material and the remainder is substantially rewritten. The new edition includes detailed material on jazz and music of the Americas that was not included in earlier iterations of the book. Burkholder notes that this inclusiveness of the book is important not only because of the cultural importance of certain forms of popular music but also to show how musical influences travel from culture to culture and among generations.

"I think it's important that music have a family tree," he says. "Students need to be able to make connections between diverse musical forms. I also had the sense that when my fellow musicologists taught music history courses they were adding material of their own on jazz and music in the United States, so my edition of the textbook really comes in response to what is happening in the field."

Burkholder wants students to connect the dots between developments in music and corresponding historical events, so the 7th edition of the text offers summaries of major world events, something that was not part of earlier versions.

"I think that when Donald Grout wrote the first edition, he assumed that students knew European history. I don't think we can make that assumption any more," he says. "This latest edition of the book offers a little history of each time period in addition to describing what was happening in music at the time. Generally speaking, if there is some development in music that doesn't make any sense, there is usually an historical reason for it."

The same could be said for Burkholder's life and career, which he claims has long involved "backing into things." When he started at Earlham, he intended to study political science with an eye towards a career in international law or work at the United Nations. But at some point early in his college career he had an epiphany walking across the Heart that he was going to be a college professor. Absent from this revelation, however, was any clue about what his field of expertise might be.

After deciding that music was the "least boring" of the various subjects to which he could dedicate his life, he entered graduate school at the University of Chicago intending to become a composer, but he eventually switched his focus to musicology. He taught at the University of Wisconsin for several years before joining I.U. where he is a distinguished professor.

Burkholder's research interests include 20th century music, musical borrowing, American music and, particularly, the music of Charles Ives. He is author or editor of several books on Ives and has published widely in scholarly journals. In his current research, Burkholder is exploring the ways in which music conveys meaning. With his contract to edit two more editions of A History of Western Music, however, he notes that he will begin preparing the next edition of the book in the coming year.

"I sometimes feel like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the W.W. Norton Company," he jokes.

- Jonathan Graham
Earlhamite Editor

(Posted December 12, 2006)

J. Peter Burkholder
J. Peter Burkholder 1975, Professor of Music - Indiana University.

M.A., Ph.D., University of Chicago

Hometown: Bloomington, Ind.

Major at Earlham: Music

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