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Musicologist Peter Burkholder

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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work.

Our guest today is Peter Burkholder.


AARON CAIN: He's a musicologist and distinguished professor emeritus at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Some of the facets of music that Peter has researched during his career include the meaning of music, how to best teach the history of music, and the practice of musical borrowing - how composers from hundreds of years ago all the way up to the pop musicians of today incorporate the music of their predecessors into their own work, whether they mean to or not. He's also an authority on the music of the 20th century, especially music of American composer Charles Ives, who had his own unique take on musical borrowing. Burkholder has written or edited numerous books and articles about Ives, and he's also the co-author of A History of Western Music and The Norton Anthology of Western Music - pretty much the go-to music textbooks for colleges and universities across the country. Recently, Peter Burkholder joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios.

Peter Burkholder, welcome to Profiles.

PETER BURKHOLDER: Thanks, it's a pleasure to be here.

AARON CAIN: When did you first start gravitating strongly towards music? How old were you?

PETER BURKHOLDER: That's a funny story. My mother remembers me saying, at the age of five, that I wanted to be a great and famous composer like J.S. Bach.


PETER BURKHOLDER: Five. I have no idea where that came from. My guess is that we had three children's books about composers - Haydn, Mozart and Bach - and that must be where it came from. The other thing I remember from the age of five is playing middle C on the piano with my two index fingers going bing bing bing bing bing as fast as I can and saying, "look, mom, I'm playing 64th notes." I have no idea where I got that.

AARON CAIN: You really said, "I'm playing 64th notes"?

PETER BURKHOLDER: That's the memory. I have no idea. My mom had wanted to be a pianist at one point, had wanted to be a singer at another point, and ended up in sociology and ultimately was a mother. I think there were a lot of musical aspirations on her side of the family. My father - a wonderful man, great enthusiast over music - had an upbringing where they had a musicale in his family every Sunday afternoon. He couldn't play anything and couldn't carry a tune in a bucket but loved music. So, I think it was out of that somewhere before my memory that I got interested in music. So that desire to be a composer from very early on led to me being put in class piano when I was six and in private lessons when I was seven. And by the end of the academic year, when I was seven, I was in tears. I didn't want to go to my piano lessons, even though the teacher was a great guy who was encouraging me to make up my own music - to do a little composing. The basic problem was that I did not have the discipline to be a performer. I didn't want to practice. So, I quit the piano at the age of seven, took up the clarinet. In fact, my parents bribed me to stick it out to the end of the year by saying, “we'll buy you an orchestra instrument if you keep to piano through the end of the year.” So, I got a clarinet, took some lessons, gave that up when I was about 14, by which time I'd started singing in choirs. Took some voice lessons, went back to voice lessons and piano in college when I began to renew my interest in music. I'd gone from wanting to be a composer to wanting to be an architect to wanting to be a writer to wanting to study law and go off and work for the U.N. and save the world - so typical liberal arts sort of background. Went off to college in one thing and exited college in something completely else, which was music.

AARON CAIN: One thing that you said that I certainly want to circle back to - because this is something that maybe we don't talk about enough these days: A lot of the people in music - the outcome of the question, “when did you first get interested in music?” Someone will say, “well, we had a very musical family.” Or they'll say, “we didn't.” The person who got involved in music heavily is an outlier. But you came from a household that was very musical, even if it wasn't full of people who pursued music professionally. That's something that I'm not sure we have as much of an awareness of these days - that music, even at an amateur level or an appreciation level, could be a huge part of a family, even if no one went into music.

PETER BURKHOLDER: I'm actually very fond of amateur music-making and amateur musicians. I just mentioned that I didn't have the discipline to be a performer. I got a little more of that when I actually started taking lessons again in college, but I was never going to be good enough to be a performer. When I came to this school of music, of course, I was surrounded at Indiana University by some of the greatest performers in the world - people like Menahem Pressler and Joseph Gingold and David Bake,r and - well, I shouldn't name any more for fear of leaving everybody else out. And I've always told people that I hold the “amateur chair” at the school of music because I play piano badly, I sing moderately well, I can conduct my way out of a bathtub, I can play the recorder a little, I could occasionally play the hammer dulcimer. But as I said, I never had the discipline to be a composer. When I get something right, I'm happy with that and it's on to the next thing - whereas a performer, a professional, has to get it right every time on demand, and, of course, make it different. But this enjoyment of music just for the sake of doing it, I like to say if something is worth doing it's worth doing badly. And I feel that way about music. It can be so rewarding to do it up to a certain level. I mean, not really badly so that people run away, but it can be so rewarding just to do it for its own sake.

AARON CAIN: Well, it could also be that the word, amateur, just gets a bad rap. It has bad PR because, if I understand correctly, the root of the word is amato - to do something out of love. And should not every musician be a professional amateur?

PETER BURKHOLDER: Indeed. And as a music historian, which is what I eventually became of course, it really intrigues me that the great repertoire that we all love - Bach and Beethoven and Mozart etc. - was built during a musical culture where lots and lots of people played music on an amateur level. So, the very people who were going to concerts in the late 18th and 19th centuries as this repertoire was being created and as it was being codified were also playing music at home or were singing in amateur choirs. And that interplay between the audience who were amateurs and the professionals who were performing for them was really important in building and sustaining that entire musical culture.

AARON CAIN: What do you think that relationship is like now? Because it occurs to me that it's still kind of a thing, but that relationship seems to be a very direct one between a product and a consumer; that we can listen to the music and develop a strong relationship with it. And our version of going home to the spinet or to our own cello and getting some sheet music is basically popping the earbuds in or streaming something online - that we're amateur musicians who don't play anything.

PETER BURKHOLDER: ...Which has some interesting sides. I've known several people actually who have been composers because they could work on their computers. They're not skilled at playing anything. They can't even play an electronic keyboard to input but they can use what skills they have to arrange things on the computer and then have the music come out. So, there's a lot more amateur composers than there used to be, which is interesting. But you're right. I think a lot of the music making that goes on is in the sense of consuming - as you say, putting the earbuds on. There's a way in which music has become ubiquitous when it never used to be. It was always a social thing, something that people do for each other or for themselves. Doing it for yourself now often means just putting it on the radio or putting it on the headphones. What's interesting about that is that music still carries this association of a social thing. I think a lot of us put music on because it makes us feel less alone when we're alone or it makes us able to concentrate when we're working. I always joke that they put on dance music at the gym to make us take our minds off of the pain that we're suffering and instead think that we're at a party.


AARON CAIN: You are listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with musicologist Peter Burkholder, distinguished professor emeritus at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

I want to talk a little bit more about a turning point in your own musical life when Peter Burkholder the music lover, the amateur performer, the student of music made the decided shift into someone who wanted to see how it ticked, who really wanted to roll their sleeves up and dig into the analytical aspect of music, do you remember when that shift happened?

PETER BURKHOLDER: There are a couple of turning points. One was in college when, as I said, I arrived thinking I was going to go into law and international law and save the world. And I took my first political science course and found it hideously boring and decided I was not going to do that. But casting around, I really enjoyed the music courses I was taking. And then one night after dinner I was walking across campus. I went to Earlham College where the center of campus is called the heart. So, I was in the heart and it was like the skies opened, the clouds parted, the rays came down and I had this sudden enlightenment that I was going to be a college professor. And that's because my dad was a college professor, two of my uncles were, many of my friends growing up in Urbana, Illinois, had parents who were college professors. And I just sort of discovered in that moment, or it was revealed to me that that was what I was going to do. I loved teaching. I loved talking. I loved all those things. It was not revealed to me what I was going to be a college professor of. And so I decided that I would pick music because it was something that I love doing, but also, that way, I could go to a concert or I could play the piano or I could sing in a choir or I could listen to recordings, and I could pretend that I was working. So that's why I chose music. Then I was really interested in composition. And this was sort of reviving that interest from five years old. It was something that I never really stopped doing even when I stopped taking piano lessons. I never stopped playing on the piano and often working out things. I remember members of my sixth-grade class really liking to hear me improvise at the piano. I remember once at one of these things where we were all supposed to be doing talent-related things and I was just too shy. I didn't want to do that. So, they literally carried me to the piano and made me do it. It wasn't until I took a music theory class in college that I began to really understand - not just by ear but by education, by structure, by the theory of music, of how harmony works, how melody works, how counterpoint works. I began to understand that through these college courses. And the music history courses and the music theory courses at Earlham were at that point allied with each other. So, while we were studying Medieval and Renaissance history in our afternoon class we were also studying Renaissance counterpoint in the morning music theory class. And two days out of the week in the afternoon class we were rehearsing, and then performing for each other, the music that we were studying. And so that was a combination of performance and theory - and theory meaning the mechanics of music, the way music is put together, chords and harmony and all that - together with the history. That was really formative for me. All of that came together - that composing and analyzing and learning the history and performing were all part of the same group of musical activities that I think has been something that I've really carried all the rest of my life. So, I went off to graduate school knowing that I was going to become a college professor. In fact, I got a Danforth Fellowship, which was specifically for people who were going to become teachers. But I was also really interested in composition. And so, I studied for my first two years of graduate school at the University of Chicago in composition. At the end of those two years, my composition teacher Ralph Shapey told me that he didn't think I should continue in composition. He thought I should become a music theorist. Now his ranking of the world indeed was that there were composers at the top, singers slightly below that, other musicians, conductors, lawyers, businessmen, garbage men, music theorists and musicologists were at the bottom.

AARON CAIN: So how did you feel when he told you that?

PETER BURKHOLDER: So, wow, it was a little upsetting. But I think he really did me a favor, because what I was being trained to do in the 1970s in graduate school, and certainly trained by him, was to write music that I didn't really like. This was the peak, or maybe just after the peak of music that was supposed to be as complicated as possible in order to be taken seriously - make a big noise. My mother used to refer to it as zoo noises.


PETER BURKHOLDER: (Laughter) Particularly after we went to hear a piece by Ralph Shapey just before I went off to study with him, she used that phrase.

AARON CAIN: Did she say, “are you going to study with this guy?”

PETER BURKHOLDER: (Laughter) Well, they weren't paying for it. I got this fellowship. So, I was interested in music theory. I went to a conference. Most of the talks, I thought, were going to great lengths to explain a small amount of music. It felt like building castles on a grain of sand to me. There were a few talks that were really interesting. On the last day, I went to a musicology session that was sort of attached to it. And there were three not very interesting but really concrete papers from music historians, and I could see how that was really contributing something to knowledge. I'd always resisted musicology because I thought it meant going off and grubbing around in dusty archives, and I was really glad that people did that sort of foundational work of finding out new facts about this composer or this institution that supported music. But it wasn't really what I wanted to do, because I was more interested in music as it means, music as it conveys emotions, which seemed more like something over in the realm of music theory or music philosophy, even, or certainly was in the realm of composers. But the last paper that morning was given by one of my professors at Chicago, Robert Marshall. It was on the dating of Bach flute sonatas. And I thought OK, this is going to be boring - about when was this written. Again, I'm glad somebody does that. But instead, it was about: what was it like to be Bach? What was it like to be a working musician in Leipzig in the 1720s and '30s and '40s? What was it like to work with particular performers and to have to come up with a new piece of music every week for a church performance? And there was this flute player who had the summer off who lived in Dresden and came over to Leipzig one summer. And the cantatas that Bach wrote for church that summer had particularly interesting flute parts that were apparently suited to this guy. And one of these flute sonatas was very like this flute part in this cantata that Bach wrote that summer. So, it probably dated from that summer. It was like solving a mystery novel. I just came away from that paper saying if that's musicology that's what I want to do.

AARON CAIN: I'm going to throw in a word here, and that word is “humanism.” Because it's a word that some of your colleagues and some of your former students - and many of those students have gone on to be colleagues - they've used that word to describe you. They've spoken of how they admire your “humanistic spirit.” What does that word mean to you, and do you consciously use humanism as a lodestar in your life and in your work?

PETER BURKHOLDER: I think it's more that it is something that I just breathed in. I don't think it's that I made a conscious decision. It's just how things were presented to me. A kind of humanism in the sense of embracing all people came from my parents. Just one example: my father worked with Bayard Rustin in the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the late 1940s when he was a college student working on integration and civil rights in Chicago and elsewhere. And my mother was a member of the Council on Community Integration in Urbana. And they met in our living room. We subscribed to Ebony just like, oh, I thought everybody who subscribed to Life magazine also subscribed to Ebony in the 1960s? But, of course that wasn't true. So, there was just a sense of everybody's a human. Everybody's got something to say. We should listen to everybody. All of that was part of the culture that I was raised in. So, when it came to dealing with music, I think a similar thing just seemed to be part of my early education. That music is something that people do. Even when I'm deep into a piece of music - how does this piece of music work from a composer's point of view? How do we get from the beginning to the end? How is it all put together? That interests me. But, ultimately it interests me because people did this. And people are trying to understand it. So, it's an act of communication between people. I think that's how humanism comes out in me.


AARON CAIN: Peter Burkholder - musicologist, author and distinguished professor emeritus at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.

Between A History of Western Music and Norton Anthology of Western Music, you are co-author of two comprehensive textbooks that are required reading for just about every college music student in this country. Pretty much every undergraduate at a music school has purchased and pored over a book that you've co-written. So, Peter Burkholder, why aren't we having this conversation on your yacht?

PETER BURKHOLDER: I did pretty well from the royalties. I wouldn't call myself a millionaire, but I think what attracted me to that project was the prospect of teaching in a larger classroom. When I was starting out teaching music history classes I would often either not use a textbook or teach against the textbook - use it as a kind of...

AARON CAIN: ...A foil.

PETER BURKHOLDER: ...A foil, exactly - using it as, OK, you read this, what do you think? Does that seem right to you? Well, what about this? And the first opportunity that Norton gave me was to write a study guide for it. The way that happened was the then-editor of music at Norton came to my office here in 1994 and said how do you like using the Grout? As it was then known. Grout was the first author. I said, “well, my students can't read it. It's written for people who went to Yale.” The then-current author, Claude Palisca, was teaching at Yale. He makes assumptions that people know things that I know my students don't know. I like to quote one sentence that was in the section on 16th-century music about Martin Luther. It ran something like, “it was not Martin Luther's intention when he nailed those 95 theses to that church door in Wittenberg to start a revolution in the church.”

AARON CAIN: Who did who with the what now?

PETER BURKHOLDER: Yeah. It's a great sentence if you know who Martin Luther is...


PETER BURKHOLDER: ...You know all about the Protestant Reformation, you know where Wittenberg is, or at least have some idea about it. But it presents just whole bunches of barriers to students like mine who come from anywhere all over Indiana, all over the world - not necessarily from Western European or American backgrounds. Many of them are from China, Korea, Japan or South America, elsewhere. And I wanted to make music history speak to them. So, when I made this complaint to the editor, the first thing he asked me to do was write a study guide. And I would typically tell my students,” don't read the textbook. Use these study questions to mine the ore out of it. And if you can answer these questions then you've gotten out of the textbook what I want you to get.”

AARON CAIN: Well, in so doing, you’re teaching them to research.

PETER BURKHOLDER: Yeah, exactly. So when I took over the book, I had the experience of having written a couple of editions of the study guides and used that to reformat the book, cut it into smaller chunks and focus it more on questions like: who are these people that created this music? What did they value in music? Because that's a really good way to get out why is the music the way it is. It's not just that music evolved according to some Hegelian plot, which was the way it was presented to me. It was just sort of it evolved this way.

AARON CAIN: ...Kind of a musical Darwinism.

PETER BURKHOLDER: Yeah. Well, actually, Darwin is a better example than some other kinds of evolution because Darwin - at least everything is about the environment. It's about the survival of the fittest. So, it's how well does music, in this case, serve the tastes of the time? And if you put it in terms of that - what do people value or what do they like - then that explains a lot. How do we get from Bach to Mozart? How do we get from Mozart to Beethoven? How do we get to Wagner? How did we get all this modern music that, as I was mentioning about studying in the 1970s, that people don't like to listen to? Why did that seem like a good idea? You can look at the whole history of music as a history of memes - things that took and got reproduced and that's what we are interested in from the past. I had one student one year who was looking more and more like he really resented me and the entire course until I gave my lecture on Josquin des Prez who is a 15th and 16th-century composer. And in Josquin's music, for the first time, there is a way that we can read the music to understand how emotion is being expressed. There may have been earlier codes, but in music of, say, the troubadours and trouveres of the 12th and 13th century or of the Middle Ages, we don't know codes. If there was a way that a melody indicated whether it was happy or sad it's entirely impenetrable to us. Whereas in the music that Josquin was writing, all of a sudden it becomes possible to see how music is being expressive of emotion, also how it's depicting the text - what's commonly called word painting. And this was part of what was valued about music that goes back to that question of value - of musical value. And he was a very highly valued composer. He was praised for this. I used my lecture on him, on Josquin, as a way to introduce this idea. Here we are in the Renaissance. Part of what's loved about Renaissance painting, about Renaissance literature, etc. is the emotions that are portrayed - the individuality that's portrayed. And the same thing is happening in the music. After this lecture, the student came up to me and said, “thank you. I was getting more and more angry at you because you were not talking about what to me is the most important thing about music, which is how it conveys emotion. And now I understand what was most important about the music that we were talking about was not how it conveyed emotion. Here we have it.” I said, “yes. And the rest of the semester is going to be about better and better ways to convey emotion. That's the history of music from this point on” - at least until the end of the 19th century and then in the 20th century things change.

AARON CAIN: You mentioned Josquin and he is one of many composers who, in their work, used as a structural element a pre-existing bit of melody. And this is one of your main areas of research - this practice of musical borrowing. And I assume we're not talking about plagiarism when we're talking about musical borrowing…but come to think of it, if it isn't plagiarism, why not? What is musical borrowing and what are some examples of musical borrowing in action?

PETER BURKHOLDER: Actually, let me address the question of plagiarism first. That gets to questions of ownership. So, one thing that's very interesting is an early 17th-century composer named Emilio de' Cavalieri. He wrote a piece that became known as The Aria of the Grand Duke. And something like 100 different composers wrote new pieces based on that piece. And as far as we know he filed no objections. There was no copyright on music back then. There was no control over it. There wasn't a sense that you owned a tune that you came up with. There was not a lawsuit like there would be in the 20th century. So-and-so…George Harrison stole my tune so I sue him. No performance rights. But he also was one of three different composers who invented what we now know as recitative - the idea of a kind of musical recitation over harmonic accompaniment - the others being Caccini and Peri. And Cavalieri kept claiming ownership of this. That, he felt, was his intellectual property - this idea. Not the tune, just the idea. So that gives us a sense of how different our sense of music is these days, that somebody can come up with a tune and it's theirs. We identify Yesterday with Paul McCartney. That's his tune. But back in the olden days it was a common fund of things that you could use. So, there's lots of different ways to use an existing piece of music.

AARON CAIN: You broke down something like 14 different ways in one of your books, All Made of Tunes about Charles Ives. You delineated all the different ways you can borrow music.

PETER BURKHOLDER: And those are 14 ways that Ives did. There are dozens of ways that different composers use existing music. One of them that connects Josquin to Ives - actually in an interesting way - is musical paraphrase. That's the idea of taking a melody and varying it in a way that it becomes like it is a new style. For example, Josquin takes a Gregorian chant...


PETER BURKHOLDER: ...A hymn, and he turns it into an idea for a mass. This is a polyphonic mass. It's for four voices. So, each of the voices gets to sing a variant of that melody in turn in a kind of fugue that is called imitation. Instead of sounding like a Gregorian chant - meaning that the rhythm is the same for each note or patterned like that - it becomes patterned in a way that is recognizably in Josquin's up-to-date style in the early 16th century. So the original chant (singing) “Pange lingua gloriosi” - becomes (singing) “Kyrie eleison…”


AARON CAIN: The bones of it are there.

PETER BURKHOLDER: Yeah, absolutely - the outlines of the note.

AARON CAIN: And the text is different.

PETER BURKHOLDER: The text is different because he's writing a mass which begins with the word, “Kyrie.”

AARON CAIN: So, it seems like one of those terms that actually is extremely well named, because it is a paraphrase. It seems very much like paraphrasing someone's words - something someone else said.


AARON CAIN: The words change a bit. The structure of it changes a bit, but the point is that it's recognizable.


AARON CAIN: You can pick it out, or at least people back in the day could pick it out when they heard it.

PETER BURKHOLDER: Absolutely - because they knew the tune. So, they recognized that. And this is a way of updating music. Chant - that happened to a lot. Composers for many, many centuries would take this ancient chant and turn it into something in a new style. It's interesting that Ives is one of those composers who uses paraphrase too. I think it was happening all along. I can find you examples in Bach and other composers. But Ives was particularly good at it.

AARON CAIN: Well, he was known for it. Charles Ives, one of the things that he's most known for is his music borrowing.

PETER BURKHOLDER: Right. And paraphrase is one of those. And he uses paraphrase to create a theme that's appropriate for a symphony or a string quartet from a tune that would not be appropriate for that theme. Here's a good example. This is a tune Henry Clay Work wrote in 1864 to celebrate the liberation of the slaves during the Civil War. Imagine having this as the theme at the beginning of a symphony.


(Singing) “Nicodemus the slave was of African birth and was bought for a bag full of gold. He was reckoned as part of the salt of the earth, but he died years ago, very old. 'Twas his last sad request so we laid him away in the trunk of an old hollow tree. Wake me up, was his charge, at the first break of day. Wake me up for the great Jubilee.”

PETER BURKHOLDER: Imagine that at the beginning of a symphony movement. You've got the same rhythm again and again and again and again. You've got three phrases out of the four phrases of the song are exactly the same. Every one of them ends up on the same harmony it began on. It's like there's nothing further to say. So what Ives does is he varies the rhythm. He changes it up so it becomes more interesting. He repeats the opening idea. He repeats the ending idea. He shifts the harmony around and it becomes a theme.


AARON CAIN: So, his creativity is part of the equation but the audience is a very important part of the equation too. Just like with Josquin, people back in his day would have known. Boy, would they have known this fragment of the Pange lingua gloriosi plainchant. And people would have known this tune about Nicodemus. And so, they're trading heavily on the knowledge of their audience, right?

PETER BURKHOLDER: Or - and this is the other side of it - maybe not that tune, at least in the case of Ives. They might not know that tune. But there's something about that tune that sounds really American. It sounds like Stephen Foster. It sounds like the middle of the 19th century. So, when he transforms it into his symphonic tune, even if somebody doesn't recognize that tune, it still carries this association with America.

AARON CAIN: With that in mind, then, what are your thoughts about cultural appropriation and music? Because I know Ives himself, and you point this out in your book, All Made of Tunes, Charles Ives had a few things to say. He didn't call it by that name but he had a few things to say about cultural appropriation and what it meant to him to use music that was quote, "American." So, is there kind of a Venn diagram here where musical borrowing and cultural appropriation overlap?

PETER BURKHOLDER: Yeah. So, in the Josquin case it's not a question of cultural appropriation because it's the same culture. In Ives' case he talks about the value of using his own musical culture, the music that he grew up with, to represent America. He grew up with Stephen Foster, with band music, with church hymns, with revival gospel songs as well as with classical music and other things. And he makes references to all of those - sometimes drawing on particular tunes, as in that case. Other times, referencing general styles. And he can do that as a way of representing the experience of being an American. So, for instance, in the second symphony there is the style of American music, but also he borrows passages from European symphonies - transitions and things like that. So, he can turn a fiddle tune into Brahms or a Stephen Foster tune into a Bach fugue, which is a fascinating thing to show the way these apparently very different musics are actually connected to each other. In later piece,s like in a piece called The Fourth of July which is about the 4th of July celebration, including a parade, he evokes not only the sound of American music but also what it means to use music as part of a celebration. There are a number of pieces by him that do that. He questioned composers in America who would use a Scotch tune or an Irish tune or, for that matter, kind of music from American Indians, Native Americans. He was white and he grew up in Connecticut. For him to use an American Indian tune would be taking something from, not a foreign country, but a different culture - a culture that he didn't grow up with. He says in a book that he wrote about his musical ideas, his musical intentions, he said that if you were going to do that you need to live with that music. He said you need to make it part of your prayer book. You need to paper your walls of your house with that music. You have to penetrate into what that music means to the people who created it. Otherwise, it's just a kind of exoticism. You're just using the tune.

AARON CAIN: Cultural appropriation is something that is a topic of discussion a lot in artistic circles these days. Do you feel then in light of what Ives wrote about it that people are making music part of their prayer book and really living with it when they borrow it these days?

PETER BURKHOLDER: That's a good question. What I will say is that the whole history of Western music is a history of assimilation. So, chant - Gregorian chant, which I mentioned - is something that results from the meeting of styles of chant from Rome and from France. And later on, ideas are imported from England, from Spain. They are exported to the United States and to Latin America, and then they're imported back to Europe. One of my favorite examples of this is the country dance, the English country dance, which comes into France and is known as a contredanse. It's a hot, new type of dance in the late 18th century. Most Haydn finales of his string quartets and symphonies are in the style of a contredanse. The contredanse goes to Spain, becomes the contradanza. It goes to the Spanish colonies and in Havana, Afro-Cuban musicians turn it into the contradanza habanera or the Havana contra dance. Habanera is the habanera - it comes back to Spain. And composers in Spain write habaneras. One of them, Sebastian Iradier, writes a particular tune to a habanera rhythm that Bizet thinks is a Spanish folk song, and assigns to Carmen in his famous opera Carmen. Carmen is supposed to be a gypsy. So, supposedly, this is a gypsy folk song which actually began in England (laughter) or at least the idea of the contra dance begins in England and then ends up in France as a piece of Spanish gypsy exoticism having made its way from England through France through Spain to Cuba back to Spain and then back to France.

AARON CAIN: So, you call it assimilation. I don't know. I might be cynical, but I'm calling it a game of telephone.

PETER BURKHOLDER: It's very much a game of telephone. It's a game of embracing everything out there and making it part of what you do. That's what American popular music is from the get go. There are African roots, African spirituals, the sorrow songs of slavery, the blues. All of that feeds in. So, there are African roots. But already when we get the twelve-bar blues, for instance, that is incorporating ideas and harmonies from Tin Pan Alley popular song. So: white, black, everything is mixed up. And that continues throughout the entire history of American popular music. It's very much a mishmash. This is what's so wonderful about it. And this is one of the things that I like about Ives is that he's open to all of these influences and so are really good popular musicians. They bring all of that in. One of my favorite examples of that is the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album, where every song on the album is in a different musical style. And each song conveys a different kind of meaning, from British music hall sounds to sitar playing to the London Symphony Orchestra. It's all there.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is musicologist Peter Burkholder.

I'd love to go back to Charles Ives because you've written about Ives quite a bit, including two books about the American composer. You've edited two others. I suspect a number of our listeners will have at least heard of him. But in case others won't have heard of him, could you tell us a bit more about Ives and his approach to music? I know a little bit about him. I'm charmed by the notion that he's proof that you don't always have to quit your day job to make your artistic dreams come true.

PETER BURKHOLDER: He had an interesting upbringing. I mentioned that he was exposed to lots of different kinds of music growing up. He grew up in Danbury Connecticut, born in 1874. His father was a bandmaster. He was trained first as a pianist and then as an organist. So, he was a working church organist from the age of 14. And he went off to college and studied at Yale with the composer Horatio Parker, who really taught him how to write in the European mode. He wrote his first symphony, or at least began his first symphony, as his senior thesis. He continued to work on it after college. He continued working as a church organist until he was in his late 20s and then quit, and made his money in insurance. He was a great innovator in insurance. He made his living not selling insurance, but teaching insurance agents how to sell. And so, he designed approaches, curricula for teaching them. And he didn't invent the idea but he propagated the idea, popularized the idea of estate planning, which means -  think about - if you're the breadwinner and you died today, what would your family live on? What resource do they have? And what's the gap between what they have and what they would need? That's what your insurance policy has to be for. So, he developed a formula for his agents to use. They would just simply ask the prospect some questions and the prospect themselves would come up with the figure that they needed. OK. So, this is how much you need. It was a really easy way to sell life insurance. That same kind of innovation can be seen in his music too. What becomes interesting about him is when he's no longer a working musician he continues to compose. But he begins to think about, what happens if I put this in with this? He had already started by, what happens if I bring hymns into my classical music? What if I write, say, a string quartet based on hymn tunes? Which his first quartet was. And then he began to draw a number of different styles together. He'd been doing musical experiments - sort of the bad music theory student - from very early on. Well, if you teach me how to write a fugue and it has to do these things, what if I change this rule? And all of a sudden, I have a fugue that isn't just in one key. It's in four different keys simultaneously. Or, what if I do this? What if I do that? Those weird exercises in what ifs. But they taught him ways of writing music that became rhetorically useful to him later. So, for instance, that's how he could write about this parade on the Fourth of July and make it sound really like it's the Fourth of July. Because if it just sounds like somebody playing a march, they're just going to listen to it as if it's music. It has to break the rules. It has to be strange. It has to be different in order to convey this idea. Or he writes a piece about how the day the Lusitania was sunk all the people on one commuter platform, as he was heading home, started to sing a funeral hymn, In the Sweet By and By, together. And it gradually came together until everybody was singing it…


PETER BURKHOLDER: …and he conveys that experience starting with instruments off in the distance at the back of the stage, playing these dissonant repeating patterns that are supposed to sound like the noises of New York. And it's not music in the sense of what Bach or Brahms would have written.

AARON CAIN: But it's not exactly a special effect either.

PETER BURKHOLDER: It's not a special effect. It's more like movie music. It's music that has a message, that carries a feeling, or sets a scene. So, what's interesting about Ives is to watch how he begins as a conventional musician whose only difference from most other musicians is that he assimilates, or he is trained in, several different traditions simultaneously. And then he puts them together in order to make music about what it's like to be an American, or what it's like to use music in these interesting ways.

AARON CAIN: You know the music of Ives extremely well. And this gets me thinking that we, as enjoyers of music, we think we know the person who created that music because we know the music, or because we care a great deal about the music. So, that emotional connection kind of crystallizes into a personal understanding of that composer; of that person. But using Charles Ives as an example, you've gone several layers deeper than that in all of your scholarly work. So, for you what has it taken to get to know a composer? And how does that in turn help you, and then help us better understand their music?

PETER BURKHOLDER: I've taught courses on Ives but also on Stravinsky, who's another modern composer, on Monteverdi, who’s a 16th and 17th-century composer, and on Beethoven string quartets. All of them were willing to break the rules in order to create an effect. And I guess I'm interested in that. I'm certainly interested in that in them. But, in each case, what was delightful was to watch the students get to know this person and this practitioner, not just the person as a person, but also as a creative artist who changes over time and puts the music together in increasingly interesting ways as they grow older and grow better at it. One thing that they all learned is: I could look at any composer this way. Spending a whole semester on one composer isn't really ultimately about just that person's music. But it's about how all music can give you a sense of who the creator is. And that's true of composers. Not just the true performers - improvisers, popular musicians, jazz musicians. The other side of it is that you can go deeper and deeper and deeper with any piece of music. You never touch bottom. In the same way that, as well as you know somebody, your dearest friend, there is always something that they may do or say that may surprise you. And when I was last teaching my Beethoven string quartets class, for instance, I told the students, “I want you to make friends with these pieces. I want them to be part of who you invite into your mental house, friends who will live with you the rest of your life that I think there's something interesting to do with almost any piece of music.” It can become more meaningful for us as it becomes more familiar to us. I've got a book in me that I haven't written yet called, They're Playing Our Song. It's about familiarity and musical meaning. It's how music becomes more meaningful as it becomes familiar and how what is familiar in music can convey meaning to us.

AARON CAIN: This brings us back to musical borrowing, doesn't it? Because for something to seem familiar it needs to have a piece of a pre-existing art form, a pre-existing piece of music. Because what you're saying about music, if we want to zoom out a couple of notches, you could say that about all of the arts; what they can reveal about a person, how it's a bottomless pool that you can get gratification by just putting your toe into it. Or if you are a deep diver you can really get in deep and find out all sorts of layered meanings. But in order to have that sense of familiarity and derive that personal meaning from it, doesn't it kind of need to be borrowed?

PETER BURKHOLDER: In a sense. So, what is music about? When you're painting a picture of a sunset, for instance, it's about the sunset. But someone once commented that a painter paints a sunset not because he or she has seen a sunset but because he or she has seen other paintings. So, ultimately, every painting is about painting itself, or about other paintings. So, in the same way, music is, in a sense, about other music. I think one of the ways it conveys meaning, or conveys an experience to us, is that it reminds us of other music. And I suspect this is true for the composer themselves putting it together: that there is something familiar in this music. It reminds us of that other music - that other music carries associations. Those associations include things outside of music. Then the new piece of music that we're listening to does something different. There's a twist. All of a sudden what was familiar is new. And those associations now have to be put into a new context. What does this mean? And so, we interpret it. And so, I always challenge my students to go through that sort of process to think about, well where does this piece fit? Or, how does this piece relate to other music around it? And, what does it do that's different? What's the twist here? And how might that convey an interesting meaning? Let me give you some examples. The opening of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra is very famous because it was used in...

AARON CAIN: The 2001 song.

PETER BURKHOLDER: …yeah. In Kubrick.


PETER BURKHOLDER: That's a famous opening. And what it is celebrating, in musical terms, is the major triad; just that simple, elemental idea of music. But Also sprach Zarathustra by Neitschze is about the Superman. And so, this is a celebration of the human who is beyond other humans. Well, in the 1940s during World War 2, the Cincinnati Symphony commissioned a series of fanfares. And they asked Copland to write one. There were fanfares for the Merchant Marine. There were fanfares for the Coast Guard. There were fanfares for various sorts of things. And Copland decided he would write…


PETER BURKHOLDER: …a fanfare for the common man. Because, after all, the common man was the one doing the dirty work of the war. And it occurred to me one day, listening to this piece - actually, this is a piece that I conducted once back in my brass choir conducting days - that it starts with trumpet calls that are sort of like the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra by Strauss. There's a moment right after the opening of the Strauss piece where the timpani are going, “BOM bom BOM bom BOM bom BOM bom BOM” – really, really asserting That “BOM” note as the home of it all. And there were timpanis at the beginning of the Fanfare for the Common Man as well. But they're not going back and forth between those two notes. They're playing them at the same time. And the chords that are suggested by the trumpets - and later the horns come in - are not one chord like at the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra, which is a celebration of the “One Chord,” “the Superman.” Instead, it's a variety of chords. They are not the same chord. And so, it's a fanfare that couldn't be played on a bugle. You'd have to have at least three different bugles to play these fanfares because it's in three different keys. So I thought, “wow!” If you link these two pieces - what Copeland is doing in commenting on Also sprach Zarathustra is saying, “we over here in America are not interested in the Superman. We're not interested in ‘The One,’ like you guys over in Germany are. We are interested in everybody.” And it's a fanfare for the common man because everybody is joining in together. This is not really a military call but it's the stuff of the military. It's like all these different people from different backgrounds who come into the army. That piece becomes much more interesting, more meaningful to me at least when I make that connection with the other piece. Then there's a later piece…


PETER BURKHOLDER: …by Joan Tower, an American composer, called Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Actually, she wrote seven of these. But I was thinking of the first one. The title, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman clearly…

AARON CAIN: …that’s already a…

PETER BURKHOLDER: …references Copeland…

AARON CAIN: …yeah.

PETER BURKHOLDER: …the fanfare for the common man. I doubt that she thought about Also sprach Zarathustra. I assume not. But she's thinking about, how can I write a piece of music that expresses for women what Copland does for men? That provided a wonderful foil for Joan Tower to express her feminism through music, with Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. This is one of the ways I think that music becomes more meaningful is by playing off of other music. That's what the Beatles were doing in Sgt. Pepper. And I think that's really what most composers are doing. There's some sort of musical image in their mind. And they write something that plays that up, that alludes to it in some way and then plays against it, does a twist. That's what I think musical creativity is all about. I think that partly originality is displayed by the way that you take something that exists and give it a new twist. A lot of the great popular singers, for instance, have been considered great because they sing a song in a way that you've never heard before. You've heard that song a dozen times or a hundred times. And yet they put something new into it. And that's the originality. That's the creativity. Creating something from nothing is really difficult. And I think one of the reasons so much music in the middle of the 20th century was hard for people to understand was that a lot of it was written with the assumption that the best thing to be was original. And the most important thing was to be different. I think that makes it really difficult for people to follow it if there's no place to hold on to. Now it's entirely possible to write something that sounds very different that nonetheless makes reference to something from the past even in a negative way. For instance, the modern composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote a keyboard suite that is a suite of dances akin to the keyboard suites that Bach wrote.


PETER BURKHOLDER: He writes this in twelve-tone style, which is a very modern style. And even references Bach's name in his twelve-tone row, which is a fascinating little trick. So, he's clearly alluding to the past. The music sounds completely new. But tucked into it, from the rhythm to the phrasing to how - when you get down and analyze the notes - how the structure actually works. All of these are making allusions to the past. So, it's a way of creating something that sounds completely new that nonetheless is deeply connected to the past. And that was actually my first published article - not about Schoenberg in particular, but about how modern music is modern because it is heard against the past. And we still call the music of Schoenberg, which is more than 100 years old now, “modern.” I mean really? Modern? Do we think of the fashions of 1910 as modern fashions? But we still call that music modern because it deliberately took this stance of invoking the music of the past, and then saying, “see what I can do that's new? See what I can do that's different?”

AARON CAIN: Isn't that what music should always do?

PETER BURKHOLDER: Yeah. But this is done in a special way. I think what makes it special is that over the course of the 19th century classical repertoire developed. I like to say to my students that it's like, at the beginning of the century most of the music – 80, 90 percent of the music that was being played was by living composers, most of it written in the last 10 years. By the end of this century, 90 percent of it was written by dead composers. And it was still being played - the music of Bach and Mozart and Handel and Brahms and Mendelssohn and all those guys. So, a composer in the 20th century - whether Charles Ives or Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg - was competing with that past. And so, they had to do something remarkably different to get attention. This is one reason why a lot of that music sounds so different. The sound is quite new. But if it was completely new, if the music had no reference to the past at all, then there would be no reason to put it in the concert hall next to all of these other pieces from the past. So, it had to evoke the past like Schoenberg did in that piano suite evoking Bach. It had to make a connection in order to be seen as part of the same collection.

AARON CAIN: But how different is that from Josquin referencing a piece of plainchant that's a couple hundred years old?

PETER BURKHOLDER: I think what's different is that the plainchant was music that was used. It was not music that was admired in a museum. There was no museum of music; no place, no collection of music that is old and admired, the way art in a museum is, until about the middle of the 19th century, and by the end of the 19th century. That collection was really very, very full. So that's what makes modern music of the composers of the generation of Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Ives and later composers different from Josquin or from Beethoven, even. Or from Bach. They looked back to the past. They did interesting things that were new and novel. They did new twists on traditions. There's lots of that in those composers. But they were writing music that was expected to be the music that everybody listened to. And only connoisseurs would know the older music that they were referring to.

AARON CAIN: Well, Peter Burkholder, this has been a delight. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

PETER BURKHOLDER: It's been a great pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.


AARON CAIN: I've been speaking with Peter Burkholder – musicologist, author and distinguished professor emeritus at Indiana University's Jacob School of Music. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website: Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.



Peter Burkholder

Peter Burkholder (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Peter Burkholder is distinguished professor emeritus of music in musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. His research interests include twentieth-century music, Charles Ives, musical borrowing, American music, musical meaning, analysis, and music history pedagogy.

He is the author of Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music and All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing and co-author of A History of Western Music, and Norton Anthology of Western Music.

Burkholder was named an honorary member of the American Musicological Society in 2010, the youngest person to receive this award. In addition, he has received awards from the American Musicological Society, the Society for American Music, and ASCAP, as well as Danforth, Rockefeller, and American Council of Learned Societies fellowships. At Indiana University, he has won awards from the Campus Life Division and the Commission on Multicultural Understanding for contributions to improving the campus climate and promoting understanding with regard to diversity issues.

He has served as president, vice-president, and director-at-large of the American Musicological Society, as a board member of the College Music Society, and as president of the Charles Ives Society.

He spoke with Aaron Cain in the WFIU studios.

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