Stanford musicologist Albert Cohen dies at 90

An internationally distinguished musicologist, Cohen was also known on campus for his decades of service to the Department of Music.

Albert Cohen, the William H. Bonsall Professor of Music, Emeritus, and longtime former chair of Stanford’s Department of Music, passed away on Dec. 31, 2019. He was 90.

Cohen was distinguished internationally as a theorist and musicologist. His major research specialties were the history of music theory and French music in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1982, he established the Lully Archive at Stanford for the study of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the most influential French composer of the 17th century.

Shaping the Stanford Music Department

As chair of the Department of Music from 1973 to 1987, Cohen is remembered by many colleagues for his dedication to the department and his enduring warmth as a colleague and friend.

Albert Cohen (Image credit: Adin Gilman-Cohen)

“Professor Cohen was a remarkable person – keenly intellectual and deeply sensitive,” said Jonathan Berger, the Denning Provostial Professor in Music. “His soft-spoken leadership shaped our department.”

“Among his vast scholarly works, his study of 18th-century harp strings inspired my interest in musical acoustics. As a mentor, Al was a caring advisor throughout my transition from graduate student to faculty member,” Berger said.

“I will remember Professor Cohen’s role throughout – but mostly, I will fondly remember meeting him as I walked my dog and he walked to the swimming pool at precisely the same time each day,” he added.

During his time as chair, Cohen was responsible for envisioning, championing, raising funds for and launching the Braun Music Center. He also played a pivotal role in the foundation of the Center of Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in the 1970s. The department’s move from the Knoll – where CCRMA is currently housed – to Braun in 1980 was critical to its success. With more classrooms, studio spaces, offices, rehearsal facilities and the Music Library, the department was able to better accommodate faculty and student needs in the areas of performance and scholarship.

“We live in daily remembrance of Al Cohen since Braun Music Center would not have been built without his long-term insistence and persistence, including seeing the completion of the building through,” said William Mahrt, associate professor of music.

A gifted scholar

In addition to numerous scholarly articles, Cohen authored several books, including Music in the French Royal Academy of Sciences: A Study in the Evolution of Musical Thought, and contributed approximately 40 articles to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. His most recent work was an edition of the 17th-century five-act opera, Céphale et Procis, by the French composer Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Geurre.

Across his career, Cohen was honored with awards such as a Guggenheim fellowship, a Fulbright grant and multiple significant grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was a member of the American Musicology Society, the Société Française de Musicologie, the Galpin Society, the American Council of Learned Societies, the International Musicological Society and the Music Library Association.

From New York City to the Farm

Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, Cohen received his bachelor’s degree in violin at the Julliard School in 1951. He became interested in music of the early Baroque in the 1950s when it was largely overlooked in academic study in favor of later music. That passion led him away from a career as a professional violinist to the then-nascent field of musicology. Cohen pursued musicology at New York University, where he received his master’s degree in 1953 and doctorate in 1959.

He taught at the University of Michigan and chaired the music department at State University of New York, Buffalo, before coming to Stanford in 1973. From that point forward, he was a cornerstone of the campus community, whether teaching in the department, swimming at the pool at 6 a.m. daily or supporting students and faculty at a performance.

“If there were an attendance record for concerts on the Stanford campus, Al would be a serious contender to take the trophy,” said Stephen Hinton, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities and professor of music. “He must have gone to thousands over the years, satisfying his broad, eclectic taste in performed music.”

Cohen’s daughter, Eva Denise Cohen, died the same day as her father, Dec. 31, 2019, from septic shock resulting from pneumonia. Albert Cohen is survived by his wife, Betty Cohen; son, Stefan Berg Cohen (Deborah Gilman); brother, Barry Cohen; sister, Regina Orloff; and two grandsons, Adin Gilman-Cohen and Theo Charles Holtzman.