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 music.

Dr. Alan Buechner was the posthumous recipient of the Society’s 1999 Distinguished Service Citation. This history is excerpted from his 1981 paper on the early days of the Society, presented at the Eastern Division Conference of the Music Educators National Conference (today known as National Association for Music Education).