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Reinhold Brinkmann, distinguished scholar of music, dies at 76

Mr. Brinkmann was chairman of Harvard’s music department. Mr. Brinkmann was chairman of Harvard’s music department. (Jane Reed/Harvard University News Office/File 1994)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 14, 2010

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Reinhold Brinkmann, one of the preeminent German music scholars of the postwar period and a teacher at Harvard University for almost two decades, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 76, and lived in Eckernförde, Germany. Professor Anne C. Shreffler, a former student and the current chairwoman of Harvard’s music department, confirmed his death.

“Reinhold Brinkmann’s breadth of vision, critical intelligence, and deep humanity characterized his teaching and mentoring of students, as well as his scholarship,’’ Shreffler said. “Conversations always branched out from music to art, literature, architecture, and history, and he always had time to talk. Most inspiring to me was his conviction that musicology was not simply an academic discipline, but rather a deeply ethical undertaking that could have a real impact on the way we hear music and see the world.’’

Mr. Brinkmann wrote extensively, though not exclusively, on 19th- and 20th-century composers of the Central European tradition, including Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, and Schoenberg, of whose “Pierrot Lunaire’’ he edited the definitive edition.

He was an unusual figure in his field, wielding formidable powers for the close analysis of scores, although he rejected any notion that the meaning of the music was exhausted in their pages.

His work often drew connections between music and literature or between music and painting, elucidating Brahms’s Second Symphony, for instance, through the novels of Theodor Fontane and the painting of Adolph Menzel. Understanding a piece of music, he argued, required analysis of its technical language, but also of the ways in which it opened as a window onto the world of its times.

In 2001, Mr. Brinkmann was the first musicologist awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, a major recognition typically given to composers or performers.

He used his acceptance speech to advocate for a “vision of a new musicology’’ that would address music far beyond the European canon, that would include contemporary living composers near the center of its purview, and that would be written in prose worthy of the subject.

“I see musicologists learning from poets,’’ he declared, “speaking and writing in a richly nuanced but understandable language.’’

Mr. Brinkmann was born in Wildeshausen, Germany, in 1934, just 19 months after Hitler’s seizure of power. He spent his early years living in the Nazi state, and, according to observers, those years stayed with him in some basic way. “He was working through this his entire life,’’ said Shreffler.

Nike Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, seemed to concur, as she once penned a tribute to Mr. Brinkmann in which she described what she called a “primal scene’’ that took place on Kristallnacht: the 4-year-old Brinkmann witnessing the local synagogues burning and wondering why the police did not arrive.

“Out of this need to explain the incomprehensible, to pry open secrets, comes research,’’ she wrote. “Here at least a sensitivity was aroused: Can one undo what happened? Take it back?’’

After the war, as a scholar in training, Mr. Brinkmann chose to work on the music of Schoenberg, a bold choice, given that Schoenberg was a Jew and branded a “degenerate’’ modernist by many Nazi-era scholars, some of whom remained in their positions after the war.

The Nazi manipulation of classical music toward ideological ends as well as the regime’s impact on the composers silenced or driven into exile, were subjects Mr. Brinkmann would return to as a mature scholar. In 1994, with his colleague Christoph Wolff, he convened a major conference at Harvard on the flight of musicians and composers from Nazi Germany to the United States.

By that point, Mr. Brinkmann himself had moved to this country, arriving at Harvard in 1985, after having held professorships in Berlin and Marburg, Germany. At Harvard, he was named James Edward Ditson Professor of Music and became chairman of the music department.

Once here, he developed an interest in an American-born modernist, Charles Ives, and taught a popular undergraduate course on fin-de-siècle Vienna in which he was able to model his interdisciplinary approach. His presence in this country also led to a wider influence on the next generation of American scholars.

“His way of looking at Schoenberg was very inspiring to me,’’ said Walter Frisch, a professor of music at Columbia University. “He had a way of making the music come alive, making it seem like it had such intellectual and cultural energy in addition to its musical value.’’

Mr. Brinkmann leaves his wife, Dorothea, of Eckernförde, Germany. Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service will be held at Harvard in the spring.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.