H. Wiley Hitchcock, 1923-2007

I’m out of town on a teaching gig, which is perhaps why the news eluded me that my friend and mentor Wiley Hitchcock passed away Wednesday. It seems terribly unfair that death could ever be associated with such a big, bluff, jovial, good-natured, generous, straight-shooting bear of a guy, as jaunty, masculine, and bullshit-deflecting as a sea captain. He was the dean of Americanist musicologists, and far more than a musicologist – he seemed a full-fledged denizen of the world of American composers, someone who walked among Ives, Thomson, Cowell as a friend and equal, clarifying what they meant and finishing up their business for them. Wiley (what a perfect name for him, more to do with the coyote than with anything “wily”) and I used to have lunch in Manhattan together about once a year, and he’d tell me about all the work he was doing on the score to Four Saints in Three Acts, or in getting together the new edition of every last Ives song. He gave you the feeling that musicology was a real “man’s game,” not for the faint at heart. Then he came down with cancer of the larynx a couple of years ago and our last lunch got postponed, with recurring promises that it would happen eventually – but it never did.

There is no one to whom I am more professionally indebted. He wrote me countless recommendations, badgered professors to hire me and publishers to consider my book proposals, and allowed me to write the post-1980 chapter of the fourth edition of his classic textbook Music in the United States (which, with his usual self-effacing humor, he invariably referred to by its near-acronym MinUS). He treated me like a favorite nephew (or so it felt), and I worshipped him like an uncle known for glorious exploits.

I have to record the one influence I can say I had on Wiley. Once we had lunch at the seafood restaurant (we always had seafood) at Grand Central Station. He broke it to me that he wasn’t going to put out a fourth edition of MinUS. Nobody seemed interested in ordinary music history anymore, he said, everyone was doing “reception history,” and feminist history, and deconstructionism, and there wasn’t any room anymore for someone to simply record events. “But Wiley,” I responded, “just because people are getting interested in all these different ways of doing history doesn’t mean that traditional history will come to an end. Someone still needs to write down the basic record of what composers wrote and when.” He grew thoughtful, and within a few months I got word that MinUS was back on track. What I wouldn’t give for another one of those expansive lunches with their wide-ranging conversations through the world of American music.

UPDATE: Stockhausen has died, too.

UPDATE: And Andrew Imbrie and Cecil Payne and Carlos Valdés and András Szöllösy.


  1. says

    What a beautiful tribute, Kyle. But what do you think Hitchcock, Stockhausen, and Andrew Imbrie are doing together right now, having all died within days of each other?
    KG replies: I like to think Wiley’s telling them what they should have done to be better composers, you know, more like Cowell and Ives. And chiding Karlheinz that he really should have given Cowell credit for the ideas in “How Time Passes.”

  2. Tom Riis says

    You’ve captured Wiley so well. I remember when I first met him, the excitement of spending a semester at ISAM a few years later, the meals and conversations we had on rare occasions, and his beautiful supportive letters (and I think a couple of blind references) at a few turning points in my career. What a genial giant

  3. Richard Kessler says

    Wiley Hitchcock was a great, great guy. Always helpful, friendly, and warm. He was a tremendously supportive spirit, with a brilliant, open mind. During my years at the American Music Center, Wiley was a huge help, and he will be missed, without question, by all those lucky enough to have gotten to know him.

  4. rona silver rutchik says

    dr. hitchcock was my teacher at UM in the late 50’s. his take on music as a disclosure of people, time and place influenced my career in the arts at conn college and with my students of Arts Alive! my invention to augment audience appreciation in the arts world. I never had a chance to thank him for his important and supportive help.

  5. says

    Hello Kyle and thank you for words that brings tears to my eyes. What you don’t say — and we can read between the lines — is that thanks to you and your participation, the fourth edition of Music in the United States came out, marrying traditional history AND feminist history AND deconstructionism, and on and on. Dad really honored you for that.

  6. David Nicholls says

    Dear Kyle
    Thank you for finding the words to express feelings that I, for one, have yet to come fully to terms with. My debt to Wiley is enormous; so too is my sense of loss.

  7. says

    Hello Kyle, I would like to thank you and your readers for this opportunity to remember my father. Since there is not going to be a funeral I decided I needed some way to remember him, your blog gave me the idea to start my own. I hope people will come read my blog entitled Memories of H. Wiley Hitchcock. I know, he and I weren’t all that close, he was off educating the world and I was off doing my thing, and we had some issues, but I loved him dearly — and that was my issue.

    I decided instead of posting a bunch of stuff on your blog I would just write my own and invite people to join. While I am going to be honest about my father, the purpose of my blog is to honor him. I am going to be sharing my memories of him and I encourage others to join me. Please come http://hwileyhitchcock.blogspot.com/

    thanks everyone for your kind comments about my father.

    P.S. do you think he would be hanging out with Stockhausen, or Zawinul, who also recently passed? Hmmm… let’s see…. if he’s still more interested in American music he is probably checking out Zawinul & Jaco right now! If the fact that he was an aetheist didn’t divert his spiritual path to some other realm unknown.

  8. Steve Ledbetter says

    For family reasons, I missed the first announcements of Wiley’s death. Your remembrance of him brings back so many memories. The news hit hard, because I was lucky to have him as a teacher (he taught a few courses at NYU as a visiting professor when I was a grad student–early Baroque and 20th century). He was the first person to hire me as a teacher (Hunter College, just before he left to found ISAM at Brooklyn College). We shared musicological connections (my Marenzio worked with his Giulio Caccini for a time, so we shared materials and ideas, and later on the fact that he chose Chadwick’s “Judith” for a reprint edition led to my conducting the work at Dartmouth and becoming a specialist in the composer). When, as a grad student in Europe, my family arrived in Paris for the first time and my year-old son got very sick, it was Wiley who took us to the American Hospital to get treatment. And when I was contemplating leaving academia to work for the Boston Symphony as program annotator, Wiley encouraged me and pointed out the far wider musical horizons that could open up for me, and the much wider range of music I would be dealing with–which turned out to be exactly true. There were many other things events, conversations, meetings, jokes, celebrations involving Wiley that I will never forget. Thanks for your tribute.