The author of ‘a shabby little shocker’

Professor Joseph Kerman, who has died aged 90, will be remembered for the phrase he coined to disparage Puccini’s Tosca in his book, Opera as Drama (1952). It earned Kerman the loathing of lowbrows and the envy of his dusty peers in academic musicology.

An American journalist’s son, born and schooled in London, Kerman taught at Princeton, Berkeley and Oxford.

tosca jump

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  • A friend of mine who much admired Opera as Drama and used it as a textbook, as its indeed a seminal book, met Kerman and asked him if he was inclined to add any composers to the pantheon in the intervening years. He abruptly asked, “Who, for example?” “Oh, Janacek.” Kerman’s response was a firm shake of the head. So Puccini and Tosca were in good company. Though Kerman’s later edition included an admiring exegesis of Butterfly Act 1. And Tosca has not fallen out of the rep as Kerman had predicted.

  • Besides his description of Puccini’s Tosca as a “shabby little shocker”, he also predicted that Turandot (and Strauss’ Salome) would permanently fade from the canon.

    These two Puccini opinions raise grave questions as to how well Kerman – however distinguished as a musicologist – understood opera.

    Early in my schooling a few of my teachers pointed out a few bad mistakes Kerman made. I occasionally read his work and found the same pattern of making overly broad generalizations, attractive to minds who want to find “smoking guns,” but which don’t hold up to detailed scrutiny. He seemed to be in love with ideas and cared little whether or not they were true upon investigation.

  • Didn’t he write, in his book on Beethoven’s string quartets, “Beethoven takes us by the hand and leads us to the second subject”?

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