Fact and Value in Contemporary Musical Scholarship

Margaret Bent

"Musicology", writes Joseph Kerman, "is perceived as dealing essentially with the factual, the documentary, the verifiable, the analysable, the positivistic. Musicologists are respected for the facts they know about music. They are not admired for their insight into music as aesthetic experience." 1 Kerman argues that we should raise the popular image of criticism; I would like to argue here that we owe it to ourselves to foster a more generous view of musicology.

It has become commonplace to label perjoratively as "positivist" certain kinds of scholarly pursuits that involve patience and hard work. But what is or was positivism? As a late nineteenth-century philosophy of history, it asserts an absolute external reality, from which facts of objective, scientific status are gathered empirically by an "innocent eye". It mandates a separation between this bed-rock of certainty and the independent interpretation of the facts so gained. I have been labelled a positivist myself2; I must admit I am tempted to take the role of the priest who asked a non-believer to describe the God he couldn't accept. After listening to the reply he responded: "well, if that's what God is like, I don't believe in him either".3 The positivistic musicologist is largely fictive, a straw man.

Notions of scientific certainty have changed. Here is a view which has found rather wide acceptance, even among so-called positivists. I quote Karl Popper:

The empirical basis of objective science has nothing 'absolute' about it. Science does not rest on rock-bottom. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or 'given' base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.4

As to the separate gathering and interpreting of material, it is often necessary for some observation of data and certain apparently routine tasks to precede others that more obviously engage the critical mind, But this is as true for criticism as it is for any other kind of scholarship. Indeed, some transcriptions, reference tools and lists can be and are produced with relatively little critical intervention. We depend greatly on such work to locate our materials, to make our selections, to save time. But a reference tool will lend itself to more critical use when it doesn't pretend to be neutral, but rather is shaped by an experienced, critical scholar alert to the need for a guiding hand and to the inevitability of bias—preferably informed and conscious bias. Ludwig's Repertorium is a classic illustration. The better the scholar, the sooner his interaction with the material begins to shape it. Observation, selection and ordering of data go together with the formation, testing and refinement of hypotheses; the questions that arise, in turn, direct the search for further evidence, the search for a right course rather than the right course for that investigation. Evidence and interpretation are inseparable.

Even in the most traditional sense, facts change, as readily, and for similar reasons, as critical commonplaces change; we know more music, we have more evidence in hand. Facts are alive. Knowledge is on the move, dynamic and growing. How much of it is considered objective fact, hypothesis, or value judgment, changes constantly. We can be sure that some facts will no longer be facts next year or next century. Indeed, I hope that some facts have changed since yesterday; why else are we here [at a scholarly meeting]? The fact" that the Caput mass ascribed to Dufay was by him has given way to a new consensus that it is, instead, an anonymous English work, a ticket that would never have earned it the acclaim that it enjoyed while it was thought to be by Dufay. Much that was built upon that certainty must now be reassessed, including the attribution of other works to Dufay on stylistic grounds. Most such facts are hypotheses, based on data of more or less compelling quality and quantity. Many of them are apparently so secure that change is almost inconceivable. But we know that some of them, like Caput, will be turned on their heads, and experience teaches us that we would be unwise to predict which of our current "hard" facts will go. We may disagree in individual cases about where to draw the line between "relatively hard facts and relatively disputable interpretations". But as Isaiah Berlin continued:

We do distinguish facts, not indeed from the valuations that enter into their very texture, but from interpretations of them; the borderline ... has, no doubt, always been wide and vague; it may be a shifting frontier, more distinct in some terrains than in others; but unless we know where, within certain limits, it fies, we fail to understand descriptive language altogether.5

The new chronology of the Bach cantatas has unseated Spitta's. Some of Stravinsky's claims about the genesis of his works have been called in question. New dates for the initial drafting and conception of many late works by Mozart have upset our beloved Köchel numbers. Einstein judged Köchel's chronology to be insufficiently critical and made substantial revisions. But when he wrote, for example, that the first theme of Mozart's last piano concerto K.595, completed in January 1791, "has the resigned cheerfulness that comes from the knowledge that this is the last spring"6 , he had no reason to anticipate that Tyson would find reason to suggest that the essentials of that movement were already drafted in the summer of 1788, along with the three great symphonies.7 These are dramatic cases where new "facts" with extensive biographical and critical consequences have superseded older facts that seemed secure enough in their own time. Triumphs of positivism? Surely not. They are simply good scholarship, drawing on all available relevant evidence. That the evidence includes documentation, handwriting and watermarks does not render this or any other investigation positivistic in approach; thus to confuse method and substance would be a most uncritical position. Nor are they better scholarship just because they provide spectacular results about well-known music; scholarship is not judged only by such criteria. It requires a little experience to discern the quality of interaction between evidence, selection and judgments that may lie behind an archivally-based article, an edition, or a bibliographical catalogue. Scholars who should know better may try to suspend their critical faculties for such "menial" tasks. It is hardly surprising that this attitude positively encourages bad scholarship.

Relativist historians (such as E. H. Carr8) pay lip-service to the "duty of accuracy", of checking facts, while permitting the historian to rely for them on his "auxiliary" sciences, archival work, bibliography, paleography. Facts so conceived become the lower level of a positivistic hierarchy whose upper level is critical interpretation. The scholars who provide these facts are usually ready to admit their slippery status; more so than are those who make use of them as mere appendages, isolated from the texture of the argument that produced them. It is the anti-positivist historians who disdain the fact-gathering process while trusting its results. This, paradoxically, places them in the position of subscribing to the twin tenets of positivism, factual certainty and separation between evidence and interpretation.9 A caricature of this position would see a division of labour in which critics in Walhalla exercise interesting, living, judgments of value upon dull, dead facts and artefacts that Nibelung musicologists have provided. Isn't it time we confined the use of "positivism" to its proper and specific meanings?

Performers, analysts and editors can address the art-work directly without the mediation of verbal commentary. Edward Cone writes that "the performance criticizes the composition"10, David Lewin that "the only complete, faithful and properly presented analyses of a piece are ... performances"11. The art historian is not expected to paint, though some do. But because of the complex collaboration that makes music happen, most scholarly work gains authority from a basis in skills of note manipulation and performance. Music critics and analysts who dissociate themselves from the process by which musical scores are arrived at may find themselves as vulnerable as the non-performing scholar.

If a performance "criticizes" a work, so, I contend, does an edition. Making a good edition is an act of criticism that engages centrally with the musical material at all levels, large and small. It underlies and powerfully shapes performance, study, analysis and verbal criticism. These and other critical activities in turn feed into the critical process that should produce the edition. Given the special nature of musical material, musical criticism need not be literary in order to be humane. But in his capacity as a teacher and communicator, the critic must use words, and as scholars we all teach and communicate. While some level of music criticism is possible without source criticism, source criticism can only be done well when it embodies music criticism. It may not show. It may not be spelled out verbally. But the term "critical edition" should be taken seriously; it must not be assumed to mean "uncritical edition".

I have chosen to emphasize editing and textual criticism here partly because they are among the most frequently maligned activities of musicologists. To deny the proper role of criticism in their common process is to disarm criticism of some of its most powerful potential. Surely no-one seriously involved with editing music of any period really believes any longer that the result can be objective or neutral, or that it is possible to present anything "as it is in the original", "to tell it as it was". That doesn't deter us from trying to get as close as we can to the intentions behind our written sources, even knowing that perfection is ultimately unattainable. Trying to be more faithful to the music than to the manuscripts can produce an edition which corresponds to no surviving manuscript, an appreciation of French baroque music that may look unpromising on paper, or a reconstruction of an orally transmitted repertory remote in time or place. We may talk about right and wrong editorial decisions, knowing that these are relative, that they reflect merely a consensus of stylistic knowledge achieved through the editor's own experience and that of his predecessors and contemporaries. We fully expect that those who come after will see it from a different perspective. An edition can embody, as descriptive prose cannot, the whole gamut of judgments ranging from authentic pieces to individual notes. I regard much of my own and my colleagues' best thinking as being of this kind, not necessarily embodied in prose, let alone in narrative history. For not all musicologists who deal with old music do so necessarily with the concerns and orientation of a historian. The new Josquin edition will be an act of cooperative criticism in all matters from authenticity of pieces and versions down to the presentations of details. It will be much more than a correction of the old edition, and will surely stimulate more debate than any conceivable piece of verbal criticism about Josquin. Editors share with analysts a handson concern for every note. Good musical editing demands a higher level of integration of data and judgment than almost anything else we do.

But if it is not neutral or objective, neither is it unilaterally subjective. The critic Stanley Fish expresses the extreme subjective position thus: "Rather than restoring or recovering texts I am in the business of making texts and of teaching others to make them". Fortunately, this has not found much resonance as a model for scholarly musical criticism. Let us have reconstruction, not deconstruction. As Helen Gardner put it: "The subjectivism and relativism that accepts any and every reading of a text as equally valid, and declares reading to be the personal importation of meaning into texts, removes criticism from all kinds of intellectual enquiry. . . . The reader, occupied in 'making texts' rather than reading them has mislaid ... intellectual curiosity, the desire to enlarge his being by learning about something other than himself"12. This doesn't deny the inevitable and indeed desirable imaginative presence of the scholar-critic in his work. Imagination is crucial to good scholarship, but imagination and learning must always act as mutual controls on each other; learning is a dynamic and shifting consensus of knowledge that includes aesthetic and musical experience as well as data in the traditional sense. Continuing collaboration and debate are a scholar's most effective safeguards against idiosyncrasy. Criticism will advance as scholarship by strengthening its input to all musical scholarship, analytical, historical, editorial and so on. Musically informed textual criticism is a foundation that governs everything built upon it—the piles in the swamp.

Fact and value, evidence and interpretation are inseparable. It follows that the nature of an investigation does not predetermine its quality. High and low-level teaching and study are as possible in aesthetics as they are in notation, in medieval as in nineteenth-century studies. Both Dahlhaus and Kerman have slanted their metacriticism towards post-medieval art-music in the West, and it has been suggested that early music lends itself less well than later repertories to certain kinds of critical confrontation. But even within the western tradition, the older repertories are precisely those where we have most to learn, and where critical engagement, both for establishing musical texts and for their aesthetic and contextual evaluation, are most urgent. How much more should those of us whose experience is predominantly in western art music be humbled by the equivalent challenge of world-wide, popular, and very old musics? We have much to learn from ethnomusicology when we face music we think of as "ours" despite distance of time and culture; Carol Robertson [in her contribution to this plenary session] urges us again to engage in a serious ethnomusicology of western music.

A critical program ought to be capable of extension from more to less familiar territory if it is to have power to tell us anything new about repertories nearer home. To work only with certified masterpieces may dull the range of our critical questioning. Mime wasted his opportunity to question the Wanderer because he knew the answers already; in turn he got caught by being unable to answer the one question that he should have asked. or, as a colleague put it: "when did you learn anything from someone who agreed With you?"13 The aesthetic assumptions underlying our predetermined canon of masterpieces derive from the same clear-eyed certainty that produced positivism; we keep the masterpieces while rejecting, on various grounds, the ideology that so defined them. While much teaching necessarily centers on this canon, we should not allow our research to be moulded by what we feel appropriate to the classroom. The canon has grown to include older and newer music than it did twenty years ago, but it will only grow further if we continue to encourage ventures into the unknown and the less known, ventures undertaken without certainty of what we will find, and without certainty that they will be rewarded within our existing range of aesthetic experience. It is not only the concept and canon of masterpieces but the range of our aesthetic capacity that we should seek to stretch beyond what we and our students already know and like. The message was embodied in an old Guinness advertisement: "I haven't tried it because I don't like it".

We should of course keep our eyes on the broader questions while we address the narrow ones, and attend to the patent need for better communication about what we do, even to peers for whom we had assumed apologia to be unnecessary. There is plenty of room for improvement. Much editing, for example, is less critical than it ought to be. Many so-called critical editions are indeed neither very critical nor very interesting. But are they worse than bad prose criticism except in being more dangerous? For serious musiccritical errors are made on the basis of insufficiently critical editions. Our collective critical responsibility includes the whole spectrum of critical judgments. Nothing will improve if we encourage a climate of thought in which textual criticism is seen as a job for second-rate talents14. Certainly we also need more first-rate critical writing about music, as well as continuing exploration of music in its cultural and intellectual context. But these are only partial, if important, responses to the goal of all musical scholarship—to increase and integrate our understanding of music on as many fronts as possible. Let us not thin the definition of musicology to what happens to be left of musical scholarship after various limbs have been amputated.

One of the saddest rifts currently impending integration is that between theorists and so-called "historical" musicologists. Howard Mayer Brown has deplored the present separation in a training that was once common to theorist-composers and to musicologists; Leo Treitler has called for integration along many lines, above all for the confrontation and collaboration of history and theory; Edward Lowinsky made an eloquent case for integration twenty years ago15, and I find myself echoing that message. Let us all listen harder to each other, without territorial prejudice, individually and through our societies, as colleagues and teachers. Let us consolidate our common ground without forfeiting the rigour of our various specialties. Who wants interdisciplinary contact based on diluted disciplines? Our teaching encourages us to demonstrate breadth and relevance, to communicate at many levels. But while of course welcoming the extent to which teaching and research are mutually enriching, we should not confuse the needs of elementary teaching with our specifically scholarly mission, and here I think my message differs from that of Professor Rhodes. Scholarship may be weakened if we discourage from difficult or unpopular undertakings into the unknown, the young researchers who most need the respect and faith of the colleagues upon whom their survival depends. If projects described pejoratively as narrow rather than approvingly as deep are squeezed out, foundations will be dug too shallow. As I have said elsewhere, the community of serious musical scholarship is under sufficient pressure from other musicians who are suspicious of scholarship and from other scholars who are suspicious of music, that we cannot afford to exacerbate mutual disrespect, either between our various societies, or within any one of them. By all means let us encourage healthy discussion and self-criticism in the interests of improving what we do, but not in such a way that we erode the fragile ecology of confidence in out varied and often lonely endeavours, lest we destroy the environment in which fruitful musical scholarship can grow.


  1. Musicology (London: Fontana, 1985), p. 12.

  2. See ibid., pp. 116-120. Incidentally, Kerman has his facts wrong. Thurston Dart specifically included criticism in the postgraduate curricula he designed at Cambridge and London; and I am not the first woman president of the American Musicological Society.

  3. I thank Mary Lewis for this story, as also, together with other friends and especially Ellen Rosand, for helpful reactions to an earlier version of this paper.

  4. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York, 1959), p. 111; cited by Arthur Mendel, "Evidence and Explanation", Report of the Eighth Congress of the International Musicological Society, New York, 1961 (Cassel, London and New York: Bärenreiter, 1962), vol. 2, pp. 2-18. Despite some quiet qualifications, Kerman alleges that Mendel "assumed the role of spokesman for positivistic musicology" (p. 115).

    I am not concerned in this short paper with the causal aspects of positivism; Kerman's criticism seems to be directed not so much at those who do proceed to an interpretive stage after applying the two principal tenets, but rather at certain types of work: " . . the preparation of editions and studies of a documentary, archival sort still make up the dominant tradition in doctoral dissertations. These dissertations with depressing frequency determine the type of work musicologists engage in for the remainder of their careers." (p. 115)

    It is not necessary, for present purposes, to review the parallels between "normal science" and claims about the "stodgy" character (Kerman p. 59) of "traditional musicology". The interested reader can trace them for himself in the discussion generated by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962) in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (Cambridge, 1970). In the latter volume (p. 52), Popper writes: "The 'normal' scientist, as described by Kuhn, has been badly taught. He has been taught in a dogmatic spirit: he is a victim of indoctrination. He has learned a technique which can be applied without asking the reason why. . . . all teaching should be training and encouragement in critical thinking. . . . I believe, however, that Kuhn is mistaken when he suggests that what he calls 'normal' science is normal".

  5. From Sir Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability, reprinted in Patrick L. Gardiner, Theories of History, Readings from Classical and Contemporary Sources (Glencoe, Ill., 1959), pp. 324-325.

  6. Alfred Einstein, Mozart (London, New York, Toronto: OUP, 1945) pp. 314-315.

  7. Alan Tyson, "The Mozart Fragments", Journal of the American Musicological Society XXXIV (1981), pp. 502-505.

  8. E.H. Carr, What is History? (London, 1961), pp. 10-11. Rose Rosengard Subotnik pleads for a similar exemption in "Musicology and Criticism", Musicology in the 1980s, ed. D. Kern Holoman and Claude V. Palisca (New York, 1982), p. 154: "What I do argue is that the kinds of hard work demanded by good criticism are different from those required by empirical research. What I do challenge is the inhuman demand that the critic master... not only the skills ... of his own craft but also those of empiricist musicology ... in order to assure his work a degree of certainty that is neither relevant to criticism not intellectually attainable." In arguing here that the processes regarded by Carr, Kerman, Subotnik and others as separable from criticism, broadly defined, are in fact central to it and it to them, I uphold a musicology, broadly defined, that is more widely practised and more often realized than either Kerman or Subotnik admit.

  9. Carr, ibid., p. 30, surely does not go far enough in arguing that history "is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts"; he has already canonized their separation as raw material, and therefore their status both as fixed, and as independent of interpretation.

  10. Edward T. Cone, "The Authority of Music Criticism", Journal of the American Musicological Society XXXIV (1981), p. 7 and passim. He also gives the complementary aphorism: "the composition criticizes the performance".

  11. David Lewin, "Behind the Beyond", Perspectives of New Music VII (1969), p. 63 n. 4.

  12. Quoted by Helen Gardner, In Defence of the Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), p. 3; her own response is taken from pp. 20, 25.

  13. Professor J. Marion Levy of Princeton University.

  14. Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago, 1983), writes (p. 2): "At certain times ... the traditional introductory guides will... seem ... problematic, and the field will suddenly erupt with new vigor and activity. This is knowledge fighting for its fife; ... scholars are ... busy exploring the fault lines of what they already know and experimenting with new models and ideas. . . . This is partly why the field is so interesting at the moment, and why it is being worked by so many interesting minds... [with so much] innovative and exploratory work. . . Textual criticism is in the process of reconceiving its discipline".

    Statements such as this from disciplines outside music should help to counter the notion that musicology can be rescued from its backward status only by emulating the kind of criticism that is, in effect, performed as autopsy upon uncritical editions.

  15. Edward E. Lowinsky, "Character and Purposes of American Musicology: A Reply to Joseph Kerman", in Journal of the American Musicological Society XVIII (1965), pp. 222-234.