Bruno Nettl (1930–2020)
Bruno Nettl, a celebrated American ethnomusicologist, was an honored native of Prague. His mother, Gertrud Nettl (née Hutter), was a prominent Prague pianist, and his father, Paul Nettl, was a prolific musicologist at Prague’s German University. The Nettls escaped to the United States in 1939, several months after the Nazi occupation, during which many of their relatives perished.
In 1946 Bruno Nettl moved with his parents and his maternal grandmother, a Theresienstadt survivor, to Bloomington, Indiana. He received his PhD from Indiana University in 1953. In 1964, Nettl became a professor at the University of Illinois, where he eventually became Professor Emeritus of Music and Anthropology.
Nettl’s ethnomusicological field research focused on the musical cultures of Native Americans, Iran, and India. Nettl’s writings continue to shape the methods of American ethnomusicology and serve as a foundation for the discipline’s history. His most influential books are the three editions of The Study of Ethnomusicology, Heartland Excursions? (1995), and Nettl’s Elephant (2010).
Nettl always embraced his Bohemian heritage. He taught classes on Czech music and took Czech language courses in his retirement. A number of his autobiographical essays discuss his childhood experiences in pre-WWII Prague. His last book, Becoming an Ethnomusicologist (2013), devotes two of five chapters to his parents and is a treasure trove of information about Prague’s German-Jewish community. Nettl visited Prague several times after the fall of communism, and was awarded the Jan Patočka Memorial Medal in 2008.
I first contacted Bruno Nettl in May 2018, before my trip to Indiana University to study the estate of Paul Nettl. Bruno Nettl did not know what exactly was in that estate; he hinted that his relationship with Paul Nettl and his second wife was estranged toward the end of his father’s life. I also visited Nettl in Illinois on March 13, 2019, one day before his eighty-ninth birthday and two days before the eightieth anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Prague. We kept in touch in the following months, and he looked forward to seeing his father’s autobiographical essay in print.