(b Berlin, 29 June 1881; d New York, 5 Feb 1959). American musicologist of German birth. He attended the Französisches Gymnasium in his native city while at the same time taking lessons in piano, music theory and composition with Leo Schrattenholz. He then went to Berlin University and, though he also studied music history with Fleischer, Kretzschmar and Wolf, it was in the history of art that he took the doctorate (1904) with a dissertation on Verrocchio’s sculpture. He then pursued a career as an art historian, helping to edit the Monatshefte für kunstwissenschaftliche Literatur and working at the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Berlin. In 1909, however, he began to devote himself wholly to music. After military service in World War I, Sachs joined Hornbostel at the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and co-authored the seminal article ‘Systematik der Musikinstrumente’ (1914), which laid out a new basis for the systematic classification of Western and non-Western instruments. In 1920 he was appointed director of the Staatliche Instrumentensammlung, which was then attached to the Staatliche Akademie Hochschule für Musik, Berlin. (It became part of the Staatliches Institut für Deutsche Musikforschung in 1935.) Sachs completely reorganized this distinguished collection of musical instruments, having many of the instruments restored so that they could be heard. At the same time he was an external lecturer at the university, becoming reader in 1921 and professor in 1928; he also taught at the Hochschule für Musik and the Akademie für Kirchen- und Schulmusik. In addition he held various advisory posts in German museums and in the official educational establishment. In 1930 and 1932, for example, he was invited to Cairo by the Egyptian government to serve as a consultant on oriental music.
Being Jewish, Sachs was deprived of all his academic positions in 1933; he went to Paris, where he worked with André Schaeffner at the ethnological museum, the Musée de l’Homme (then Musée du Trocadéro), and taught at the Sorbonne. In 1934 he began the series of historical recordings, L’Anthologie Sonore, which provided an introduction to the sound of early music for several generations of students. In 1937 he emigrated to the USA; from 1937 to 1953 he was professor of music at New York University. Besides being a consultant at the New York Public Library, and serving as visiting professor from time to time at various American universities (Harvard, Northwestern and Michigan), Sachs also lectured regularly at Columbia University in New York, where he was made adjunct professor from 1953 until his death. In the last decade of his life he received various honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from Hebrew Union College and from the Free University of Berlin; the West German government appointed him an Ordinarius emeritus; the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Musikforschung made him an honorary member; he was president of the American Musicological Society (1950–52) and honorary president of the American Society for Ethnomusicology.
Curt Sachs was a giant among musicologists, as much because of his astounding mastery of a number of subjects as because of his ability to present a comprehensive view of a vast panorama. This latter talent made him a generalist or popularizer in the best sense of the word, a qualification which should not obscure the fact that he developed new fields of inquiry. Indeed his achievement in synthesizing countless facts into a comprehensible whole is all the more impressive since he often dealt with previously unexplored areas. Sachs was one of the founders of comparative musicology (‘vergleichende Musikwissenschaft’), a forerunner of ethnomusicology, and of modern organology. He not only devised (together with Erich von Hornbostel) the classification scheme for instruments that has gained universal acceptance, but he also wrote a standard dictionary of instruments (1914), a model catalogue of one of the world’s great collections (1922) and an important history of instruments (1940). His studies in the music of the ancient world produced several standard surveys of the field as well as a number of provocative essays. His fascination with the nature of the musical experience led him to an important study of rhythm and tempo, and his concern with the relationship between music and the other arts inspired his world history of the dance and his major cultural historical study, The Commonwealth of Art (1946). Although his methodologies have been criticized for the biases which, as a product of the Berlin ‘cultural-historical’ school, they inevitably inherited, his contributions are still highly valued. Sachs was a great teacher and a warm and vital person, beloved by his many students. He was filled to overflowing with ideas and with energy; the amount of work he produced in his busy life was prodigious.
By Grove Dictionary