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 ValdÃ©s and AndrÃ¡s SzÃ¶llÃ¶sy.