Charles Louis Seeger, Jr. Musicologist


Charles Louis Seeger, Jr. Musicologist

Bernard Maybeck, Architect
Charles Seeger House (1915–1919): 2683 Buena Vista Way

At a time when music studies focused on the western classical tradition, Charles Seeger pioneered musicology, the integrated study of music’s many aspects (its form, history, theory, composition, and music education itself) regardless of period or culture. Seeger, a descendent of Mayflower Pilgrims, was born in Mexico City, raised in Boston, and educated at Harvard. Interests in composing led him to Germany where he began his career as a conductor of the Cologne Opera.

A hearing loss forced a change in career direction. Out of work, and living in New York City the 26-year-old Seeger accepted UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler’s offer of a full professorship. Seeger and his wife, violinist Constance Edson, came to Berkeley in 1912, a time when the city was largely farmland with wildcats and foxes roaming eucalyptus covered hills. They eventually settled into a house Bernard Maybeck designed for them on Buena Vista Way and Seeger became an avid walker, overcoming city-bred fears of woods and mountains. Committed to a diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, and lots of honey, at age 88 he would still instruct his grandchildren in yogic headstands.

Since UC had no Music Department Seeger was hired to a position in the Agricultural Department and his first classes were held in the foyer of the Hearst Mining Building. He soon helped found a department that was housed in “an old smelly house on Bancroft.” Seeger’s broad interests, which included “living” music, were encouraged by contact with fellow faculty members including, anthropologists Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber. Seeger and his students sought help pronouncing the words of foreign folk songs from UC language faculty and various other sources including the Greek man selling peanuts on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph.

Shortly before the birth of his son, the famed folksinger Pete, UC fired Seeger for his outspoken opposition to World War I. He then taught at the Juilliard School, the New School of Social Research and other institutions. In 1931 he married his second wife composer Ruth Crawford. The couple had four children including folk singers Michael and Peggy. Seeger wrote extensively about folk music, music theory, and the interrelationship between music and culture. In the 1930s he founded the American Musicological Society and the American Society of Comparative Musicology. After WW II he and others founded the Society of Ethnomusicology. In celebration of his 90th birthday Seeger assembled a music symposium of friends, family, and fellow professionals in Berkeley, the place where his pioneering work began.

Contributed by Robert Kehlmann, 2014

  • Seeger Residence, photo (2014) R. Kehlmann

  • Ruth Crawford Seeger (ca.1938), Library of Congress

  • Pete Seeger, photo (1955) Fred Palumbo, Library of Congress

More information:
Understanding Charles Seeger, Pioneer in American Musicology
Reminiscences of an American Musicologist
Biographical sketch
“Studies in Musicology 1935-1975,” Charles Seeger, UC Press (1977)

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society