With new music history textbook, Gibbs seeks to tell great stories

Lifelong Chautauquan Christopher Gibbs poses with a copy of his textbook, The Oxford History of Western Music: College Edition. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

For three hours every morning and 365 days per year for five years, Christopher Gibbs sat and wrote the story of Western music.

The Oxford History of Western Music: College Edition is a condensed version of Richard Taruskin’s original six-volume opus in 1,152 pages. The book may weigh and smell like a typical college textbook, but its contents differ from those of its predecessors.

“Music history oftentimes has a not-great reputation amongst music students who would prefer to be playing or prefer to be doing something else than learning about the history of music,” Gibbs said.

What Gibbs tried to do, and what Taruskin had attempted before him, was to approach history in a new way. The leading textbook in music history was first written in 1960, and while it has been updated numerous times, it still adheres to a dry and affectless presentation of music history.

Music scholarship has greatly changed in the past 30 to 40 years, Gibbs said, in the inclusion of social and cultural context to understand and analyze music.

“This book has a little bit more opinion in it. It takes a point of view, which is a little bit unusual,” Gibbs said.

Taruskin, now a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and previously at Columbia where Gibbs studied as a graduate student, is considered by many to be America’s leading musicologist. Gibbs was given complete freedom to alter, expand and reduce the text of Taruskin’s original history — and had limited contact with him throughout the process.

“We would have breakfast once a year,” Gibbs said. “And he would say, ‘Is it going well?’ And I would say, ‘It’s going well, Richard.’ And he’d say, ‘I’m glad to hear that.’ ”

Sitting down to begin the staggering task, Gibbs decided not to start at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle with a figure with whom he felt comfortable: Mozart.

Mozart wrote an extensive number of letters that, when strung together, yield to the reader a story of more depth than most composers before and after his time.

“We could have profiled many other composers and compositions … We opted instead for a narrative approach, telling stories about different times, people, places and pieces … But this approach requires some caution because stories themselves have histories,” he wrote.

The passage in the introduction of his book can allude to the story of Mozart, but such a story springs from Gibbs himself.

Gibbs taught as a musicologist at the State University of New York University at Buffalo and currently teaches at Bard College. He has been a music lover since he grew up in Chautauqua.

His mother took him to the Institution even before he was born. A pianist, she had studied at The Juilliard School and played with the orchestra as a student.

Although not a performer, Gibbs has always loved music. Working as a photographer for The Chautauquan Daily beginning in 1972 and through his young adulthood, Gibbs photographed and eventually wrote stories about opera, dance and the orchestra.

“What I really loved doing was photographing the opera. I would go to the rehearsals and some performances to photograph, but sort of became the company photographer,” Gibbs said. “I learned the operatic repertory backwards and forwards and loved doing ballet and the symphony as well.”

In his teens, Gibbs made the acquaintance of Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s music director at the time, Walter Hendl. The meeting turned out to be a fateful one.

“I met him and talked with him, and he said, ‘You know a lot about music, what do you play?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ And he said, ‘You have to learn something, you have to learn how to read music; you’ll get more out of it that way.’ ”

Hendl began to give Gibbs piano lessons — the initiation of a chain reaction that led to Gibbs studying music as an undergraduate and then music history in graduate school. Gibbs said he thought of Chautauqua as the “incubator” of his passion for music.

Working for the Daily, Gibbs had the opportunity to meet dozens of notable artists, ask them for advice and learn about different career paths. He came away with the idea of entering the world of academia.

“It’s one of the things I feel strongly about, of being able to be in the musical world without necessarily being a performer or composer,” Gibbs said.

Glancing down at the behemoth textbook he penned, it is clear Gibbs lives concretely within the musical world.

“I love having interested students with limited or no musical training in my classes, because I find they often have insights that more advanced music students preoccupied by theoretical issues may miss,” he wrote.

The passage from his introduction may refer to Gibbs’ own history with music, but also establishes early on that the textbook was written for a new kind of student.

“Textbooks themselves, the way that they tend to work now, are very cluttered,” Gibbs said. “There’s the core text, but then there are lots of little side bars and little boxes and little things that are trying to get over the student’s perceived ADD.”

At first, Gibbs figured he would write the textbook along the same lines, following the tradition all the other textbooks he had read and taught throughout his career had founded.

“And that was maybe why it was good to begin with Mozart. I realized the best thing to do was just tell the story,” Gibbs said.

Instead of inserting an excerpt of a letter into the margin of the book, Gibbs integrated many of the letters into the overall narrative. The narrative creates a flow that is more interesting to read and perhaps more challenging for the student.

“This had to be a fairly sophisticated book; it couldn’t be a dumbed-down textbook as a lot of textbooks are,” Gibbs said.

While writing, he realized that certain colleges would not want to adopt it for fear of scaring away their students. Gibbs did not let that fear stop him from scribing what he believed to be the best book he was capable of producing, knowing there would be a student population willing to read it.

“My ideal student was a smart, interested person that wanted something a little bit more sophisticated,” Gibbs said. “I’ve had those students at SUNY Buffalo, and at Bard, and at Haverford and at Columbia. It doesn’t really matter where you are as much as what the student level of engagement comes with.”

Gibbs, between writing program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and co-directing the Bard Summer Music Festival, teaches introductory music history courses at Bard. He prefers to teach introductory courses for the opportunity to blow students’ minds, he said.

“It’s just a tremendous amount of fun to turn students on to classical music,” Gibbs said. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t believe that — I thought opera was so stupid, and now all I want to do is go to the opera.’ It’s incredibly satisfying.”

“A principal reason music endures is because meaning can be ascribed to it; this is why so many of us are drawn so powerfully to this particular art form,” he wrote.

Gibbs said that while that sort of emotional connection is “fine,” he strives to give his listeners a context for what they hear. Part of his impetus in writing the book was to inform the listener with the story behind the piece, the reactions of audiences which heard the piece during its time, the traditions surrounding it or the composer’s intention, if known. Such knowledge can make the listening a richer experience.

“You know, they’re not abstract pieces. They’re written by individuals for individuals,” Gibbs said. “And that’s, therefore, absolutely crucial.”

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