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Feature

Richard Leppert

New regents professor Richard Leppert is one of the world's leading intellectuals in musicology, art history, and other fields. He's also an expert on Theodor Adorno, whose works fill more than one shelf in his office in Nicholson Hall.

Expanding horizons

New regents professor explores how music and art shape society and why they matter

By Gayla Marty

Aug. 7, 2007

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 a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the Twin Cities campus. He's also 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 the principal architect of one of the top graduate humanities programs in the country, one that competes successfully with Stanford and Berkeley, Harvard and Duke, for the best graduate students in the world.

This summer, Leppert was named one of five new regents professors at the University, its highest faculty honor. The award could not be more timely. By year's end, he'll have three new books out--bringing his total to 10--in addition to dozens of articles and book chapters and at least 150 conference papers. His books have been reviewed in nearly 60 different academic journals in not only musicology and art history but also philosophy, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, literary studies, history, and critical theory, as well as in newspapers such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and London Observer. They've been translated and used in graduate and undergraduate courses throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

"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.

Clear writing is one of Leppert's hallmarks. He 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 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."

Music was how it all began for Leppert, and that started with his parents.

"My dad loved music, although he couldn't carry a tune to save his life," he laughs. "But my mother was a terrific singer. Her mother, in turn, sang in the chorus for the Chicago Opera in the late 19th century until she moved to a homestead on the Montana line of North Dakota. So I basically grew up around music. I wanted to be an opera singer."

Leppert was a goof-off in high school until he encountered a teacher--the only Ph.D. teaching high school in North Dakota, he adds--with very broad, interdisciplinary interests: literature, architecture, music, art, and more.

"He basically taught me some intellectual discipline," Leppert says. So, despite hail storms and crop failures that wiped out family savings for several years running, Leppert attended what was then Moorhead State College. He graduated first in his class with three majors--in music, English, and German--plus a lot of credits in art history.

Singing did finance Leppert's first trip to Europe. He figures it took three years to save up the money by working in church choirs (at one point, he was in four simultaneously) and at weddings and funerals during high school and college. He stayed for two months.

"It was life changing," he says. "It's the sort of thing you do when you're 20, hitting every conceivable museum and looking at every possible historical building you can get entrance into, from early in the morning until the last light of the day. It was hugely exciting, particularly, I think, for a kid who grew up a long way from cities."

Music and meaning

It was during graduate work at Indiana University that Leppert and many of his friends were profoundly changed by the experience of studying music during the Vietnam War 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."

Five new regents professors

Five faculty members were named regents professors on June 8, 2007.

Frank Bates, chemical engineering and materials science, Institute of Technology

Richard Leppert, cultural studies and comparative literature, College of Liberal Arts

Elaine Tyler May, American studies and history, College of Liberal Arts

Matt McGue, psychology, College of Liberal Arts

Peter Reich, forest resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Their appointments bring the total number of regents professors to 25, en route to 30 by 2010. Currently, each receives a salary stipend of $20,000 per year and an additional $30,000 research stipend. See the news release on their selection for more information.

Ever since, Leppert has been searching out how music matters, and how music is more than notes.

"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."

Leppert's search led him to Theodor Adorno, a key German intellectual who wrote on a wide range of subjects, music in particular. A Jew who fled Germany during the 1930s and '40s, 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 last 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 music list for the University of California Press and is now in its fourth printing.

This fall, Ashgate Press--third in the U.K. after Oxford and Cambridge--will publish Sound Judgment, a collection of Leppert's writings, one of six volumes in its series Contemporary Thinkers on Critical Musicology.

A good place to work hard

Leppert's impressive output might be attributed to his farm upbringing. He rises between 5 and 6 a.m., gets to the keyboard at 7, and reads late in the evenings. During academic terms, he squeezes meetings between class times and writes on days he's not teaching.

Summer is not a time to slow down. On the contrary, it's Leppert's chance to not only finish demanding writing projects but pack in the intense physical challenges he craves--"I don't deal well with confined spaces," he says. "I need to get outdoors." That includes regular trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and mountain backpacking, as well as home maintenance. He was cleaning a paintbrush in the basement when he got the call about the regents professorship.

The award means Leppert will not have to spend precious time applying for research funding--an enormous task. It also confirms that, despite offers from competing institutions, Minnesota is the right place for him to be--a place that he says "keeps you on your toes" because of top graduate student talent, an interdisciplinary department with colleagues reading and writing in many areas, and opportunities to work with members of a truly comprehensive university faculty.

"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.