Tramping Musicologists

Several years ago I was reading Andrew Wheatcroft’s book The Habsburgs (Viking, 1995), and came across a resonant passage in which he used the phrase “tramping historians.”  Specifically, he referred to a Cambridge professor called Dr. John Saltmarsh, “the last of the tramping historians,” whose students “were expected to walk over the land, to understand the true contours of the past which they would later learn about in the dark recesses of the documents.”  This struck a chord with me, as I had just returned from a trip to the Czech Republic where I had visited some very remote and out-of-the-way places in pursuit of a research quest, and realized that I am definitely a tramping musicologist, and know quite a few others among my friends and colleagues in the field.

The patron saint of tramping musicologists, at least for those of us who study the eighteenth century, is surely Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814).  He went everywhere.  He traveled to France and Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, to great cities and small villages, where he visited musicians in their homes and places of work, and went to courts and cathedrals and conservatories and libraries.  He listened, he observed, and he wrote.  Dr. Burney combined the spirit and intellect of a scholar with the soul of an adventurer.  He could have stayed at home in London and lived quietly as a church organist.  But he set forth in quest of the sources of music, wherever they might be found, and ended up writing great music history that is also a compelling travelogue.

When I began to study at New York University as a graduate student, I encountered a passionate tramping musicologist, Jan LaRue, who became my mentor.  He too had been everywhere.  Jan’s particular quest was the eighteenth-century symphony, and he unearthed and catalogued thousands of them in hundreds of libraries, archives, and closets.  He assumed that all of his dissertation students would likewise tramp, and so we did.  During my first research year abroad, as a DAAD fellow in Munich, I visited libraries and collections there and in Berlin, Paris, Salzburg, and Vienna.  My quest at that time involved the study of Mozart’s keyboard concertos in early manuscripts, including his own, and this was a thrilling period of discovery.  I learned not only the tingling, ineffable sensation of tangible contact with the past, but the indispensable practice of seeing and judging a source for one’s self, and the exceptional richness and value of exchanges with new colleagues, of conversations in other languages, of food and wine and manners and perspectives entirely different from one’s own.

In short, tramping musicology has become a way of life, and my intention in this blog is to record aspects of it for sharing and reflection, in a more colloquial style than I would use in writing up my observations for scholarly purposes.  I hope that students and colleagues, family and friends, will enjoy keeping up with this peripatetic part of my musical life, and will feel encouraged to share their own adventures and quests.

Further reading:  Occasionally I will share links to other essays that are relevant to the topic of the day.  I would like to recommend a delightful recent piece by a fellow Mozartean, Bruce Alan Brown, that offers a classic narrative of tramping musicology; see An Idomeneo Odyssey at