An Appreciation

by Robert O. Gjerdingen

(Professor, School of Music, Northwestern University)

Eugene Narmour was born on 27 October 1939 in Deming, New Mexico. Deming is small and isolated. It once served as a remote port of entry on the Mexican border before the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 moved the line further south. With the vast landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert for a backdrop, Deming recently stood in for “a secret base in Nevada” in scenes filmed for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Narmour’s earliest years coincided with an upswing in his family’s fortune. As the country recovered from the Great Depression and began the re-industrialization of the war years, his father rose from truck driver to car dealer to city councilman. While in grade school, young Gene worked at his dad’s auto dealership, cleaning the floors and polishing cars. The experience of hard work served him well when, at age thirteen, his father walked out the door for good. From that time on, Gene had to make his own money. He cut lawns and worked at a soda fountain, a grocery store, and a plant where cotton was pressed into bales. By age fifteen he had saved enough to buy his first car.

Music became his ticket out of Deming. His mother had wanted Gene and his two older sisters to be the first in their family to go to college. To that end, she arranged for them to have some of the official markers of upward mobility—the Encyclopedia Britannica and piano lessons. Gene’s lessons began when he was in the second grade. Today, he feels that the limitations of his local teacher hampered his early development at the keyboard. Yet having heard him play four-hand classics with the composer (and fine pianist) George Crumb, I can attest that any deficiencies in his early training must have been remedied in later years. The piano, however, would always remain a sideline.

In the summer before ninth grade, the high school band director asked Gene if he would like to play the trombone, then the instrument made popular by Tommy Dorsey. This band director, Don Adcock, became Narmour’s first contact with elite music and musicians. Adcock had studied flute with John Wummer (1899–1977), principal flute of the New York Philharmonic. Adcock recognized Gene’s talent, encouraged him, and supplemented his instrumental lessons with instruction in harmony, transposition, and orchestration. Gene became something of a trombone prodigy. After just that first summer’s study he qualified for the senior band in Deming, and after just one year he gained first-chair honors at New Mexico’s all-state band, a position he retained throughout high school. Scholarship offers came from various colleges and universities in the region, but Adcock, now a trusted mentor, advised Narmour to apply to Curtis, Juilliard, or Eastman. Gene applied only to Eastman because of its connection to a university and the promise of a broader education. He was accepted, and, by the end of his first semester, he had the grades to rank second in his class.

Narmour began his studies at Eastman in music education, the career of his mentor and what promised to be a practical way to support a new family—he had recently married Kathy, his high school sweetheart. He studied all the instruments and took two years of violin lessons and a year of clarinet (the instructor tried to recruit him as a clarinet major). As a trombonist he won a seat in the Eastman Philharmonia, recorded with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, received the Performer’s Certificate, and played a concerto with the Eastman-Rochester Symphony conducted by Howard Hanson. Narmour stayed at Eastman for a masters degree, made a sixteen-nation tour with the Philharmonia, and wrote an orchestral work that was read by the Eastman-Rochester Symphony, again under Howard Hanson.

In the world of Heartland America and within the culture of band music, this was all the success that one could imagine. The School of Music at East Carolina University (Greenville, NC) quickly offered Gene a job as instructor of trombone and music theory; he accepted, and he could have spent his entire career there doing exceptionally well. Yet remember how his piano lessons were but half of his early enculturation, the other half being the Encyclopedia Britannica. And recall that his choice of Eastman had turned on the promise of a liberal education beyond performance. After just two years at Eastman, he had been advised by his trombone classmate and future colleague Eugene Wolf to switch from music education to music theory, which he did. But that education itself began to seem limited and limiting.

In what must have felt like a reckless gamble during the most unsettled of times (1967), Narmour gave up his position, sold his home in Greenville, cashed in his retirement savings, and moved his wife and four young children to Chicago in pursuit of a doctorate and an intellectual mentor—Leonard B. Meyer, then chair of the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. Two such different men could hardly be imagined. Meyer, the son of a wealthy Jewish lawyer from New York City with a high position in the Roosevelt administration, had all the opportunities a young musician might desire: violin studies with emigré virtuosi, composition lessons with Stefan Wolpe and Aaron Copland, tickets to the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, studies at Columbia with Jacques Barzun, and so forth. Narmour, by contrast, was a reluctant Baptist raised by his poor mother in a region that New Yorkers assumed to have barely received the telegraph, much less culture. Both men, however, were passionate about music and ideas. They became lifelong friends and confidants.

In Isaiah Berlin’s playful dichotomy, thinkers are categorized as either foxes, who scamper about snatching meals from all over the intellectual landscape, or hedgehogs, who burrow into one great idea. Meyer, as Berlinian fox, brought new breadth to Narmour’s horizons, and Narmour, as Berlinian hedgehog, dug into questions of melody in ways that changed Meyer’s approach to music analysis. Meyer’s Explaining Music (1973) grew out of his Bloch Lectures given at the University of California, Berkeley, in the winter and spring of 1971. This was also the period of Narmour’s work on his dissertation, “A Theory of Melody” (1974). Both men were pioneering a new look at melody from the perspective of listeners and the psychological principles that guide listeners’ perceptions.

To supplement a university fellowship that never anticipated a student with five dependents, Gene assumed the conductor’s position with the University of Chicago Orchestra. That experience helped him win a job at the University of Pennsylvania (1971) as both a conductor of the university orchestra and a junior professor of music theory. Faced with the imperative to publish or perish, and yet not ready to articulate a mature analytical method for melody, Narmour sought instead first to explore the methodological bases of music theory and “the need for alternatives in music analysis.” That phrase forms the subtitle of his Beyond Schenkerism (Chicago, 1977), whose title was a play on Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences‬ (1969), an interdisciplinary collection of essays from prominent attendees at the Alpbach Symposium (Austria) in 1968. Where Narmour envisioned a lively conversation on alternatives to the music theory of 1920s Vienna, the followers of Heinrich Schenker saw an all-out assault on the tenets of their faith. Angry reviews issued from outraged music theorists. I was a student of Narmour during this period and remember the arrival of each new and more damning screed in the periodical section of the library. Perhaps the high water mark of Schenkerian counter-revolutionary fervor was reached by a woman who, at a music convention, literally beat on Narmour’s chest while decrying his calumnies on the sainted Heinrich. All the fuss, though intended to stamp out heresy, had the result of making Narmour famous.

Invitations for lectures and guest professorships poured in. In 1984 he accepted a visiting fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford University, where he worked with the psychologist Burton S. Rosner. He returned to Wolfson for the 1989–1990 school year, fitting in a lecture series in Helsinki, and then went to China for a one-month visiting professorship at the Central Conservatory in Beijing (spring 1991). During this busy period he was promoted to full professor (1987), became department chair for a second time (1990), published his magnum opus, a two-volume treatise on melody (1990, 1992), and spent a year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford (1993–94).

As the Edmund J. Kahn Distinguished Professor of Music (1993), and with both an international scholarly reputation and successful administrative experience as department chair, Narmour was appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to be Associate Dean for the Humanities and the Social Sciences in 1995. His long-held reputation for fairness and compassion survived three years in that role before he went on to accept the acting directorship of the Penn Humanities Forum (2000–2003), which he had helped establish. He retired from the university in 2007 after thirty-seven years of distinguished service to the institution and to the field of music scholarship, and in 2011 he received the SMPC Achievement award from the Society for Music Perception and Cognition. He continues to study and write from his home in the Philadelphia suburbs, aided by his wife Kathy and bemused by an ever growing tribe of far-flung grandchildren.

(from Musical Implications: Essays in Honor of Eugene Narmour. Ed. by Lawrence F. Bernstein and Alexander Rozin. Pendragon Press, 2012)