Musicologist and critic
Born April 3, 1924; Died March 17, 2014
JOSEPH Kerman, who has died aged 89, was an internationally esteemed musicologist, operatic authority and incisive critic who gained renown by dismissing Puccini's Tosca as "that shabby little shocker" and likening Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier to a "fifty-cent valentine," though he generously retracted his description of Menotti's The Saint of Bleecker Street as a work in which "every attitude, every feeling, every response is on Menotti's own special level of banality."
He also once declared that works such as Puccini's Turandot and Strauss's Salome would fade from the operatic scene "as decisively as Meyerbeer's L'Africaine and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia was scarcely to be doubted."
He was never a musician to mince his words, but those who shared his loathing of certain operas found themselves forced to face the fact that L'Africaine and Lucrezia Borgia (like the rest of Donizetti's vast output) were creeping back into the repertoire, that The Saint of Bleecker Street (as he came to admit) was not quite so awful as it seemed, and that Der Rosenkavalier remains one of the greatest of operatic hits - one which, indeed, is opening this year's Glyndebourne Festival with the brilliant young Robin Ticciati as conductor.
When you consider, too, that a mostly undistinguished concert performance of Turandot recently packed the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, and that Tosca and Salome are showing no sign of being dislodged by some of the rarities Kerman valiantly preferred to favour, it becomes evident that little has changed. Could so erudite an authority have got things so blatantly wrong, or was he merely expressing a lofty opinion?
Yet Opera as Drama, the first of a major succession of books, and the one from which the above quotations are all drawn, remains a flaming firecracker of an achievement, establishing the description "opera as a sung play" - fine so long as the play is Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande, adapted by Debussy - and "opera as a symphonic poem," historically perfected by Wagner. But such things, as they say, are always debatable, though the author's opinions, it must be agreed, were memorably expressed and as strong as they could possibly come.
Born in London of American parentage, Joseph Kerman was originally called Joseph Zukerman but selected Kerman as a pen-name which he later officially established (though his brother George, a celebrated bassoonist, chose to remain a Zukerman).
After leaving London, where his father worked as a journalist, he studied physics. but by 1950 had won a doctorate at Princeton University with a study of the Elizabethan madrigal. From then on, music consistently beckoned and he held major appointments at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as (less happily) at Oxford. Writing hard until the end of his long and productive career, he left a trail of books including an invaluable analysis of Beethoven's string quartets (loved and hated by its readers in equal measure, he characteristically observed) and the intriguingly titled Opera and the Morbidity of Music, in which classical music was portrayed as alive and well and in no danger of oblivion.
His adored example and mentor, as a critic, was Edinburgh's great professor of music Donald Francis Tovey, and his own tirelessly wide-ranging volumes of essays could be said to follow admirably, perhaps even more impressively, in Tovey's footsteps.
He is survived by his son Peter and daughter Lucy as well as by his bassoonist brother George. His wife Vivian died in 2007.
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