By Gayla Marty
New regents professor explores how music and art shape society and why they matter
Richard Leppert grew up on a grain farm and cattle ranch where the closest neighbor was more than a mile away. Today, the world of ideas that Leppert occupies is just as expansive, spanning disciplines and national boundaries like so many crop varieties and quarter sections on the North Dakota plains he once called home. Where others see distance, he sees—and hears—connections.
Leppert is one of the most important intellectuals now working in the humanities at the overlapping boundaries of fields including musicology and art history. He’s an award-winning teacher at both the undergraduate and graduate level and a principal architect of our top-ranked graduate program in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society, one that competes successfully with Stanford and Berkeley, Harvard and Duke for the best graduate students in the world.
In summer 2007, Leppert was named one of five new Regents Professors, the University’s highest faculty honor. The award could not be more timely: in 2007 alone he published three new books—bringing his total to ten.
“I can think of nobody who is accorded such high regard across what were once regarded as unbridgeable gaps between disciplines," says British musicologist Derek Scott.
Chords for changeLeppert concentrates on how music and visual culture shape society and culture, with special attention to issues of gender, class, and race. Much of his work is about European “high" culture from early modern times to the present, but he has also published on American music, art, and popular culture, including the country music of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.
“Music has a long history of shaping societies, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill," he says. “Music and other human discourses are more than just occasions for pleasure and entertainment. They articulate how the world works, or is thought to work, or might work. It’s something we have to take seriously and spend time talking about."
It was during graduate work at Indiana University that Leppert and many of his friends were profoundly changed by the Richard Leppert experience of studying music during the VietnamWar and the fight for civil rights.
“During the day we labeled chords," he remembers, “but at night we listened to music that wasn’t allowed in the hallowed halls—music that meant, and the meanings went beyond the lyrics."
When a general campus strike was called after students were killed during a demonstration at Kent State—not far away—one professor declared that he didn’t see what Vietnam, Kent State, or student actions had to do with studying to be musicologists.
“In a fundamental sense, he was right," Leppert says. “That was the problem."
Music mattersEver since, Leppert has been searching out how music matters, and how music is more than notes.
Leppert’s search led him to Theodor Adorno, a key German intellectual who wrote on a wide range of subjects, music in particular. Adorno struggled with the relationship of music and art to humanity and inhumanity.
“It was through teaching that I became more interested in Adorno," Leppert says. “I was a little skeptical when I started, but students seemed to really take to him. Over the past 20 years, his impact in the American academy, in about six different disciplines, has been profound."
Leppert became so well versed in Adorno’s work that he finally edited and wrote extensive commentary for a fat volume, Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music. It became the surprise top seller of 2003 on the University of California Press music list and is now in its fourth printing.
“The few scholars who have produced work as extensive and important as Leppert’s might well be expected to close up shop at this point in their careers," says Brown University musicologist and Adorno expert Rose Subotnik. “By contrast, he continues to produce scholarship that is staggering in its quantity and incomparably fine in its quality." For Leppert, the horizon has never been wider.