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Bruno Nettl (1930–2020)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Stephen Stuempfle
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When Bruno Nettl passed away in the early hours of January 15, 2020, the Society for Ethnomusicology lost one of its truly towering figures. The modern history of our field parallels the life of this remarkable ethnomusicologist, who was present at the very founding of SEM and who was equally present at the SEM annual meeting at Indiana University in November 2019, when he spoke with eloquence and wisdom about the very core of the field’s values on a panel of assembled SEM Past Presidents. Bruno spoke often about the ways in which SEM was his intellectual lodestar, remarking frequently as he moved between scholars young, old, and every age in-between at SEM meetings that “this is my crowd, where I’m really among friends.”

Bruno Nettl was born in Prague, in then-Czechoslovakia, on March 14, 1930, the son of the historical musicologist Paul Nettl and the distinguished pianist Gertrud Hutter Nettl. In 1939, his immediate family fled German-occupied Prague because of their Jewish heritage, first finding refuge in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father would teach at Westminster Choir College, before moving with the family to Bloomington, Indiana, where Bruno would later study and receive his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1953. From Bloomington, he moved to Detroit, where he would teach at Wayne State University and serve as Music Librarian until 1964, interrupted only by a two-year Fulbright lectureship at the University of Kiel in Germany. In 1964, he began his teaching career in ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he remained until his death, still fully engaged with the university as Emeritus Professor of Music and Anthropology.

Dedicated as he was to the University of Illinois, Bruno would enjoy visiting positions of every kind at colleges and universities throughout North America and the world, often at the invitation of his many former students, who turned to Bruno when establishing and shaping ethnomusicology’s foundation for the first time at their own institutions. The full range of his influence as a teacher and by extension as a scholar who tirelessly collaborated with others is comprehensible only by examining the growth of our field worldwide during the past half-century. It was but one measure of such influence that Bruno would receive honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, Carleton College, and Kenyon College. Two Festschriften honored him, Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History and This Thing Called Music. Bruno’s many other honors are too numerous to mention here, and yet it should be noted that many of these resulted from the intellectual contributions that accompanied his service to the field of ethnomusicology and the SEM. Among these was the 2012 Charles Homer Haskins Prize of the American Council of Learned Societies, for which the nomination emanated directly from the SEM.

It is equally impossible fully to assess the extent of Bruno’s scholarship and the impact it has had on music scholars and scholarship throughout the world. Students and scholars everywhere read his work early and often in their careers, and they turn to his ideas and publications when teaching courses general and specific. Who but Bruno would have written the entry on “Music” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians? Who but Bruno could undertake research projects across the globe—among North American Indigenous peoples, classical musics in Iran and India, folk and vernacular musics in rural Europe and the world’s great cities—while at the same turning to the subjects and musicians close at hand in his own backyard, in books such as Heartland Excursions? Such questions are not merely rhetorical, for there are answers to them, which lie in the subjects of Bruno’s major contributions to the theory and methods with which ethnomusicologists endeavor to understand the world: the three editions of The Study of Ethnomusicology, edited volumes such as Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music, and the many issues of Ethnomusicology that he curated during his two editorships of SEM’s journal.

To know Bruno Nettl as a scholar, teacher, and friend was also to recognize the remarkable presence of his family in all he accomplished, but also in the very intimacy of his approach to the field of ethnomusicology. Bruno’s wife of sixty-seven years, Wanda, stood at his side no less as he pursued fieldwork and made marzipan for his students, and all recognize Wanda’s presence in the dedications to her that open Bruno’s books, their shared eponymous role for the Bruno and Wanda Nettl Lecture series, in the artwork that graces the covers of his books, and Bruno’s loving tribute in the final months of his life, when he stewarded the publication of Wanda Nettl, Artist. Bruno is survived by Wanda, by his daughters, Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and Gloria Roubal, and by an extended family of in-laws and grandchildren, among them Stefan Fiol.

Almost any account of Bruno Nettl’s influence on our field will necessarily fall short, but I should like to close this brief obituary with one more, a line from the letter I wrote on behalf of the SEM when it successfully nominated Bruno for the 2012 ACLS Haskins Prize: “Because of Prof. Nettl’s career, because of his influential scholarship, and because of the generations of mentored students across the disciplines—because of Bruno Nettl—‘music’ in the twenty-first century has more meaning in the lives of the many.”

- Philip V. Bohlman, on behalf of the Society for Ethnomusicology

NB: A more extensive tribute to Bruno Nettl’s life will appear in the spring issue of the SEM Newsletter.

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