Charles Hamm: 1925-2011

by justindburton on October 18, 2011

Charles Hamm’s obituary, which he wrote himself. Feel free to use the comment section to remember him and to discuss his work and its impact on yours and the field at large.


Charles Hamm and John Cage

Charles Edward Hamm, 86, one of seven children of Strother and Ruby (Barksdale) Hamm, died on October 16, 2011, at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia on 21 April 1925, he was a 1942 graduate of Lane High School, where he was a member of the football team, the band and the choir. He also played trombone in a local swing band. He entered the Engineering School of the University of Virginia in 1942, but his education was interrupted by the war. Volunteering for the United States Marine Corps, he was commissioned a second lieutenant as a member of the 17th Platoon Commanders’ Class at Quantico, Virginia.

Returning to the University after being honorably discharged from service, he served as president of the Glee Club, and earned a BA in music in 1946. He began graduate work at Princeton University as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, earning a MFA in musical composition in 1950. His first teaching position was at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where he was active as a composer. Among his compositions were Sinfonia for orchestra, premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1954, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based on the story by James Thurber, which won a national prize for a new chamber opera in 1956, and numerous songs and piano pieces. He returned to Princeton to earn his Ph.D. in musicology in 1960, after which he held professorships at Tulane University, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and Dartmouth College, where he was named the Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music in 1976 and chair of the Department of Music. He also held visiting professorships at the University of Texas at Austin, Hamilton College, Brooklyn College, New York University, the University of Natal in Durban (South Africa), Harvard University, and Colorado College. In 1976 he made a lecture tour of music schools in India under a Fulbright grant, and in 1988 he made a similar lecture tour of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

As a musicologist, he first studied the music of the Italian and English Renaissance. He founded the Archive for Renaissance Manuscript Studies at the University of Illinois and traveled throughout Western and Eastern Europe to locate and catalogue manuscripts of Renaissance music. After writing on the composers Guillaume DuFay and Leonel Power, he turned his attention to American and popular music. One of the first musicologists to study popular music, he was a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, twice serving as chairperson of that organization. Two of his books, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (1979) and Music in the New World (1983), both published by Norton, became standards in their field, and the latter was awarded the first Irving Lowens Prize by the Society for American Music. Later books included Putting Popular Music in its Place, published by Cambridge University Press in 1995, and Irving Berlin: Songs from the Melting Pot (Oxford University Press, 1997). His Music in the New World was translated into Italian, and much of his work has been published in Chinese translation. He also wrote on the music of American avant-garde composers such as John Cage, on George Gershwin, and on the popular music of South Africa and China. He was a major contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the Harvard Dictionary of Music.

He served as President of the American Musicological Society in 1973-74 and was elected an Honorary Member of that society in 1993. ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers) gave him a Special Achievement Award in 1998 for his work on Irving Berlin, and the Society for American Music presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. Other awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright research grant, and several grants from the American Society for Learned Societies

He loved Vermont and his home on Bragg Hill, where he lived for more than 30 years. He was a longtime member of the Norwich Duplicate Bridge Club and the Hanover Poker Club. A volunteer at the Norwich Public Library, he also served a term on the Board. He enjoyed golf and games of Upwords with various friends.

Predeceased by two sisters, Dorothy and Frances, and two brothers, Douglas and George, he is survived by a sister, Ruby, of Charlottesville, and a brother, Jerry, of Weems, Virginia; three children: Bruce, of Berkeley, California; Chris, of Seattle; and Stuart, of San Francisco; four grandchildren; his first wife, Helen Hamm, of Seattle; and his second wife, Marilyse de Boissezon Hamm, of Wilder. He shared his life with a succession of cats, most recently Mao, Junior, Woody, and Genji, and he was devoted to his dog Tati.

{ 1 comment }

Bill Cole October 26, 2011 at 11:32 am

Charles Hamm was a wonderful human being. He supported me at Dartmouth when the Deans were trying their best to get rid of me. He and I started a new course in the Music Department called American Music in the oral tradition. He was a very progressive thinker and supported progressive ideas and people. My stay at Dartmouth was enhanced because he was there. I truly Loved him.

Bill Cole

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