Obituary: Steven E. Gilbert

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The Independent Culture
STEVEN E. GILBERT'S great achievement in musicology was the marriage of high learning to what he steadfastly refused to regard as low culture. He wrote the first - and so far the only - book to deem the music of George Gershwin worthy of serious analytical attention.

The American musical establishment has always had a deep-seated ambivalence about Gershwin, dating from Gershwin's own move from Broadway to the concert hall. Gilbert would have none of it: he knew that the quality of Gershwin's music was not the result of a series of happy accidents and he sat down to prove it. Indeed, by refusing to subscribe to the snobberies current in much of musical academia - his students at California State University, Fresno, were expected to examine rock music alongside their Bach and Beethoven - Gilbert threw analytical light on a range of styles far beyond what might conventionally be expected of a professor of music.

Gilbert's first degree was in mathematics, from the City University of New York in 1964. He then went on to Yale, to take an MM in 1967, an MPhil in 1969 and his PhD in music theory in 1970. Even in those early days Gilbert enjoyed the unorthodox. When he first went to Yale, for the consultation session required for graduate students, he was faced with a committee consisting of the distinguished theorist Allen Forte and two important composers, Mel Powell and Quincy Porter, whose father and grandfather had been professors at Yale before him. Forte recalls

Steve's response to the request that he play something at the piano - anything. He played a Rodgers and Hart song, which delighted Professor Powell and me and perplexed Professor Porter. This dual response to Steve was characteristic not only of his career as a graduate student but also of his career as a mature scholar and musician. Some people just didn't know what to make of him.

It was through his studies with Forte that Gilbert became a "Schenkerian". Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) was an Austrian music theorist whose writings have proved extremely influential in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly in American universities. Schenker's approach, Gilbert argued, was

useful in depicting basic melodic, contrapuntal, and harmonic structures. A Schenkerian graph will highlight the main melodic outline of a piece or song along with the large-scale progression of local key areas. At the same time, it will point out certain details - melodies, parts of melodies - that relate to the larger picture in some significant way.

Gilbert was to remain faithful to this methodology throughout his career, a sympathy that was to lead to a best-selling textbook, written with Allen Forte. Schenker himself never put down his ideas in a systematic presentation that could be used for teaching; Forte and Gilbert set out explicitly to fill that gap and their Introduction to Schenkerian Analysis, published in 1983, has been continually in print since then, forming part of the diet of thousands of undergraduate students.

The Music of Gershwin (1995), which took 10 years to write, applied Schenker to what might have appeared, to some musicologists, an unlikely subject. Gilbert's aim was "to discern and delineate those structural traits that make the melodies of George Gershwin memorable" and he succeeded brilliantly in demonstrating the sophistication and skill that went into the composition of music that always strikes the ear as fresh, even (in the best sense) artless.

Gilbert's concern was to take his reader with him, and he explains as he proceeds, though inevitably the argument soon enters fairly thick theoretical undergrowth. When I once commented that it required considerable musical literacy to follow his exposition, his response was typically good-natured and generous: "In retrospect, a little less musical literacy on my part would have been more profitable."

Gilbert was an enthusiastic member of the Sonneck Society for American Music, writing with especial understanding on the music of Carl Ruggles, the ultimate individualist outsider. Ruggles's no-nonsense honesty struck a chord with Gilbert, whose conservative-libertarian views frequently rankled with the woolly, leftish leanings of many of his colleagues. American academia is a highly politicised environment, where dissent is often dismissed with illiberal narrow-mindedness. But Gilbert joined debate with gusto, particularly where he suspected some knee-jerk political correctness was impeding logical, reasoned thought, and politicised sentimentality disguised as bleeding-heart social conscience regularly attracted his good- humoured contumely.

However, his manner so skilfully balanced bluntness and courtesy that he always retained the respect of his intellectual adversaries.

Indeed, Gilbert's writing, even in a format as casual as the e-mail (and he was a prolific e-mailer), always sparkled with wit, and his generous personality was immediately communicative via the computer screen: hundreds of scholars all around the world - people who never met him - now feel they have lost a close, genuine friend.

His interests stretched well beyond his formal preoccupations. He was, for example, a former president of the Porsche Society, and at the time of his death was considering starting a sideline in the restoration of antique fountain pens. He was also, as he put it, a "cocktail pianist", and a concert reviewer with an invigoratingly independent mind.

The first chapter of his Gershwin book begins with a sentence that its author could have written of himself: "George Gershwin died young, yet he accomplished much, as if he knew he had little time." Having had a heart by-pass operation in his early forties, Gilbert was probably aware of the parallel.

At the time of his ridiculously early death, from meningitis, his intellectual vigour was undimmed, harnessed as ever to his catholic tastes: he was working on a book that applied his Schenkerian methodology to rock and pop music, based on one of his courses of lectures at California State University, Fresno, where he had taught since 1982; the manuscript may be far enough advanced to allow eventual publication. In the interim, The Gershwin Style: new looks at the music of George Gershwin, a collection of essays with a chapter from Steve Gilbert, appears this month.

Martin Anderson

Steven Edward Gilbert, musicologist: born New York 20 April 1943; married 1977 Patricia King (two sons), 1998 Lory Hose; died Fresno, California 26 February 1999.