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Last modified: Monday, August 22, 2005

IU musicologist rewrites ‘History’

AUG. 22, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Beethoven was devastated.

He had permanent hearing loss. No cure in sight. A deaf musician is as inconceivable as a blind painter, he lamented. Humiliated and fearful that his condition might be exposed, he withdrew from public life. "Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed," he wrote in a letter to his brothers. The year was 1802.

Peter Burkholder

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He considered suicide. But he realized it was "impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me." With courageous resolve, he immersed himself in his work, placing his own experiences and feelings at the heart of his music. His Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony), which he composed over the next two years, reflected his struggle against despair, his experience of being nearly overpowered by his affliction, and, ultimately, his winning back his will to create music.

Audiences at the symphony's premiere in 1805 had difficulty grasping the new work. It was too long, too complex, less accessible than the composer's earlier works. For Beethoven, though, there was no looking back. He was on a new course -- challenging listeners to engage music deeply and critically, rather than seeking merely to be entertained. He had entered a period of intense self-expression, and the composers who came after him would seek to capture their own emotions in their work. Listeners would demand it. Today's musicians who write only when inspired owe a great deal to a man who continued composing in the face of calamity -- for the sake of his art.

This is just one of the many stories from A History of Western Music, which many scholars regard as the finest survey of Western Music available. Peter Burkholder, a professor of musicology at the Indiana University School of Music, calls it the "gold standard" of music textbooks.

Through six editions and nearly half a century, A History has defined the way music history has been taught. But it's the seventh edition of the book, which Burkholder has revised and rewritten, that promises to significantly impact the way students listen to, learn and understand Western music.

Previous editions of the book, which debuted in 1960, centered largely on musical styles and genres. The new edition, though, has a clear focus on people - those who created music and those who listened to it. Burkholder centered his revision on three central themes: people making choices; what those people who created, performed and heard music valued in it; and the tension between tradition and innovation, including changes in technology. He believes this more "humanistic" approach will enlighten students and engage them in the historical significance of different works and styles.

"The paradigm that Donald Grout (the original author) started out with in the 1950s when he was writing the first version was a history of musical style in which the music was the central figure, and sometimes it seemed as if it was happening even without the intervention of people. I wanted to make sure that people were at the center of the story, not just composers, but everybody who was making music, listening to music and experiencing music," said Burkholder, who wrote the study guides for the fifth and sixth editions. (This is his first edition as a co-author.)

"The text was originally set up as a history of musical genres and styles, and that's important," he added. "But while I tried to preserve the things that were very good about the book, I felt it was necessary to change the paradigm by focusing on people and their values. For instance, why does the romantic style replace the classical style? Why does modern music replace the romantic style? How did the sonata form develop? How did it serve the needs or interests of the time?"

Burkholder also hopes the decision to focus on people over styles results in a book that is -- in the spirit of Beethoven -- more exciting and dramatic. "One of my editors paid me a real compliment. He said it was a real page-turner," Burkholder said.

In addition to the new focus on people, another major change to the book is the addition of previously under-represented repertoires, including music in the Americas, music by women, and popular idioms from the 16th century to the present, such as jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll. Forty percent of the core repertory is new to this edition, according to the book's publisher, Norton.

Burkholder said his decision to include discussion of topics such as popular music and jazz has met with some resistance. Some teachers who read parts of the book in draft were concerned that the additions would change the historical paradigm so much that it would somehow reduce the importance of Western music as an art form. Others wondered how the book could possibly explain the importance of a topic like post-World War II jazz and popular music in a few pages when entire courses are being taught on the subject.

Burkholder conceded that the narrative he presents isn't a seamless history and can't possibly "do justice to all the types of music out there." Still, he believed that it was necessary to broaden the area covered by recent editions if the book was going to deliver an accurate picture of Western music to students.

"I think it's important to cover popular music in the 20th century because, after all, a lot of the music that I cover in the whole story going back to the 16th-century chorales or madrigals and other music throughout the Baroque, 18th century and 19th century is, in fact, music that had a popular function as well as becoming connoisseur's music or art music," Burkholder said. "And so the same thing is true in the 20th century, actually. Both jazz, and to some extent rock, have become musics that begin as popular music … and move towards becoming art musics in their own right. To leave them out of the story is really to distort the history of Western music."

His main concern is that students will find the total amount of information in the book overwhelming or -- as one of his students once described an earlier edition of the book -- "like trying to get a drink from a fire hose." As with previous editions, the book is complemented by the Norton Anthology of Western Music, which includes 172 full-length scores (71 new in this edition), accompanied by commentaries on the music. But that's a concern he can live with -- at least until he begins work on the next edition.

"The function of this textbook is more like a potluck [dinner] where you're taking small portions of everything. I think of it as if I'm playing tour guide and the group is on a 20-city tour of Europe," he said.

Bibliographic information: A History of Western Music, 7th ed., by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, published by W.W. Norton.

NOTE: Peter Burkholder recently answered questions about the new edition of A History of Western Music in a video interview, which is available at The video requires Flash Player.

More about IU's Musicology Department can be found at