"Oscar Sonneck and Recent Developments in the Study
of American Music"
by Alan C. Buechner*
One of the ironies in the history of musicology
in this country is that the precedents set by the man who at his
death was hailed as "the Father of Musicology" in America, namely,
Oscar G. Sonneck (1873-1928), were almost completely ignored by
those who followed after him. As the first Chief of the Music Division
of the Library of Congress and later as the first Editor of The
Musical Quarterly, Sonneck worked constantly for the recognition
of historical studies in music and for the adoption of the widest
possible program of inquiry. An inspired workaholic, he produced
one groundbreaking study of early American music after another only
to find them greeted with indifference by the musical public. It
was only toward the end of his life that he began to receive the
recognition which he deserved.
After Sonneck's death the increasingly favorable
climate for the nurturance of historical studies in American music
reversed itself for reasons which are not entirely clear. Sonneck
himself had no immediate disciples and those who went on to establish
musicology as an academic discipline did little to encourage such
endeavors. The attitudes which underlay this not-so-benign neglect
emerged many years later at a meeting of the American Musicological
Society, held at Washington, D.C., in 1964. The acrimonious debate
which followed Donald McCorkle's paper on "Finding a Place for American
Studies," left little doubt in the minds of the younger scholars
present that pursuit of such studies would place their careers in
jeopardy. For this reason Sonneck's mantle passed to those persons
whose careers were outside of musicology, that is, to certain ethnomusicologists,
music educators, folklorists, social historians, music critics,
and performers. Already active in the field, they lacked only an
organization of their own to meet their special needs and interests.
The movement to establish a society named in
honor of Oscar Sonneck and dedicated to the furtherance of his ideals
was initiated at a conference on early American music held at Old
Sturbridge Village in May 1973. Follow-up consultations led to a
rump session held at the close of the American Musicological Society's
Annual Meeting held at Washington in 1974. It attracted nearly 150
interested persons who authorized its organizers to proceed with
the formation of the Sonneck Society.
The first organizational meeting of the Society
occurred in 1975 when its members were the guests of the Society
for Ethnomusicology at its Annual Meeting held at Wesleyan College
in Middletown, Connecticut. Two papers were read at a joint session
of the two societies, a constitution was adopted, and a slate of
officers, headed by Irving Lowens as president, was elected.
The Society's first meeting as an independent
organization took place under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
Devoted to "Two Centuries of American Music," it was held at Queensborough
Community College in May 1976 on a weekend which coincided with
the total shutdown of the City University of New York, then in the
throes of a severe fiscal crisis. Forced to move to a parish hall
of a local church, the members of the Society rallied and went on
to enjoy a program which included many excellent papers and rousing
performances by the Western Wind vocal ensemble, by Neely Bruce,
pianist, by the After Dinner Opera Company, by the Country Dance
and Song Society, and by the Harmonic Society of Queens.
The next opportunity for the Society to honor
the memory of its namesake came in 1977 at a conference held at
the College of William and Mary in association with Colonial Williamsburg.
This meeting, which was smaller in scale than the previous one,
was devoted to consideration of the impact which the phonograph,
the invention of which was being celebrated at its centennial, had
upon the development of American music of all kinds. A panel of
experts drawn from academia, from the national archives, and from
the world of commerce, including country music, debated the issues
at length. Opportunities for working with Edison phonographs and
cylinder recordings, for hearing the music Jefferson knew, and for
enjoying Tidewater Virginia cooking were also provided.
In an effort to expand its membership to the
Middle West the Society met the following year, 1978, at the University
of Michigan. The theme this time was American musical instruments
and their makers. A side trip to view the collection of instruments
at the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn was made and papers and performances
on the hammered dulcimer were offered. The conference closed with
a session on 19th century ballroom dancing accompanied by an orchestra
composed of players from the School of Music.
The Society, acting again on its aspirations
to become a national organization, held its next annual meeting
at New Orleans in 1979, where it was the guest of Tulane University.
Given this locale it was inevitable that jazz would be the principal
topic. Indeed, the aficionados had a field day between papers, panel
discussions, live performances, and trips to local archives of jazz
materials. Some fine papers on other topics, such as "White Gospel
Music," were read. Cajun music, the folk music of French-speaking
Louisianans, did not go unnoticed, nor was the City's delectable
gumbo soup neglected. Memorable too was a voyage on a Mississippi
steamboat downriver to the site of the Battle of New Orleans and
a visit to the French Cathedral where Louis Moreau Gottschalk played
the organ as a boy.
By this time the Sonneck Society had begun to
gain real momentum. A delightfully outspoken, occasionally controversial,
and always helpful Newsletter edited by Nicholas Tawa served to
keep its members in touch. The publication of a festschrift dedicated
to the memory of O.G. Sonneck and comprised of articles in praise
of him and of his lesser known writings edited by William Lichtenwanger
was in preparation. A contract for its publication by the University
of Illinois Press was in the final stages of negotiation and plans
to initiate a new journal, to be called American Music, were
being brought to fruition. Under the editorship of Allen Britton
it would strive for both the highest standards and the broadest
possible coverage of its subject matter.
News of these developments was announced in 1979
at the Society's next Annual Meeting, which was held at the Peabody
Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. This conference, which was the
finest to date in regard to the quality and variety of the papers
read, was also notable for its "Salon des Refuses," a session devoted
exclusively to papers on American music which had earlier been officially
accepted and then rejected by the Program Committee of the American
Musicological Society for its Annual Meeting the previous November.
These papers proved to be genuinely worthwhile and the inescapable
conclusion was that the Sonneck Society does have an important role
to play in advancing the cause of historical studies in American
*Dr. Alan Buechner, the posthumous recipient
of the Society's 1999 Distinguished Service Citation, presented
a paper on the early days of the Society at the 1981 Eastern Division
MENC Conference. Copies of the attached abstract were found while
going through his papers, and since it will be some time before
a more detailed history is completed, it was felt that this abstract
could serve as an interim survey and a homage to Alan and his work
on behalf of the Society.