Death of the last true musicologist

Death of the last true musicologist


norman lebrecht

January 16, 2020

The Czech-born ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl died yesterday at 89.

A child refugee from Hitler, he taught at the University of Illinois and conducted research among Native Americans, and in Iran and South India.

His first book was published by Harvard in 1956. Its title, Music in Primitive Culture, would have got him deplatformed today.

Nettl pursued his discipline oblivious to fad and fashion.

He enjoyed a 65-year marriage to Wanda and enriched the minds of thousands of pupils.



  • Esther Cavett says:

    I think Prof Netti’s “Daramad of Chahargah : A study in the performance practice of Persian music. ” is a fine book.

    But why the hyperbole of the SD title? Musicology (and the ‘true’ musicologist, whatever that is) live on. It’s a bit undignified this tabloid zero-sum-game approach

  • anon says:

    About the only people still holding to the positivism and white supremacy of older forms of anthropology, musicology, and their related fields, are those who came late to the nationalist agenda–or those still desperately trying to hold onto those ideas. And of course, we see the corresponding slaughter those philosophies bring is alive and well too.

    We also have other manifestations of nationalist and racial supremacy like the New American Century, Brexit, and European and American far-right populism. To say nothing of Putin’s Russia and growing Chinese nationalism.

    So with our scientific view of our own supremacy, we find ourselves in yet another Crusade against “primitive” Arabs, Iranians, and other Muslims–to say nothing of having to constantly slap around Latin America and China.

    And then slowly it dawns on us that Blut und Boden-like philosophies about all-white, all-male orchestras deep in the European Congo are about as exotic as anywhere else. We slowly realize we are a “primitive culture” too, especially if we have a wee bit of historical memory… A positivism a little less blinkered that folks in Brexistan and Trumpistan have are sadly forgetting.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    His father, Paul Nettl, was a prolific musicologist.

    Bruno Nettl was one of the leading US ethnomusicologists of his generation. He was a nice person, whose modesty belied his reputation. RIP.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Last true musicologist? Can you please elaborate?

  • Bryan says:

    We have lost some very fine musicologists in recent years. Joseph Kerman and Charles Rosen come immediately to mind. But there are lots of “true” musicologists still in harness! My good friend Steven Huebner at McGill University with his numerous books on opera is certainly one. And of course, the dean of American musicology, Richard Taruskin, is still alive and well.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I once heard Charles Rosen play the last three Beethoven sonatas in the afternoon, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
      In the morning he gave a brilliant lecture on these sonatas.
      I was mightily entertained all day long!

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        He was a great musician and intellectual. I preferred to listen to rather than read him, however.

        What I find to be a never-ending source of pleasure is knowing that the music I love has been the subject of vast inquiry – so rich in tapestry and complexity that it has provided careers for a great many academics. Long may this be the case.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    If he had published his first book more recently, it would have been titled “Music in Indigenous Cultures”. Perspectives and vocabularies evolve, but the value of good work persists.

    • Dennis says:

      Every person and culture is indigenous to somewhere. It’s a meaningless therm that is just PC code for “non/anti-white, non/anti-European, non/anti-Christian.”

  • Sharon says:

    I agree with both Dennis and Peter San Diego as well as most of what Anon says.

    The thing is, I believe that for the most part most of the original anthropologists went into it to decrease prejudice and give people a less biased or less Eurocentric understanding of other cultures, for example, Margaret Mead. Ethnomusicology is a branch of anthropology.

    I suppose that the correct way to title the book today would be “Music in Non Capitalist Cultures”

    • Fan says:

      “Primitive culture” (the title of E. B. Tyler’s 1871 book) has specific meaning. It usually refers to small-scale societies without highly developed written language. So “non-capitalist” is not a good replacement.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Bach, Haydn and Mozart worked in “non-capitalist” cultures. As did Beethoven. Essentially, for much of their careers, Bach and Haydn were indentured workers forbidden to leave their employment.

      This is how Mozart started out as well. Even Beethoven needed the permission of his Lord (his “owner”) to go to Vienna to start his career.