I second that emotion pt. 1
I feel compelled to contribute to the conversation started by Briawna on our blog where she eloquently spoke of her work as a musicologist and what it means to her. Briawna is in every way more qualified for this discussion than I, and she is definitely more heroic (almost nothing can keep me from a meal). Yet as an independent scholar participating in the Fulbright program for nine months of funded research in Budapest, I have had recourse to consider (possibly too much) what musicology is to me.
There was a crucial moment in my development and education that I had to make a choice. I had to look at other career paths that could either provide the world community with more immediate service or myself with more money, or continue on the esoteric path of a musicologist. It might sound rather cliché, but it was not easy. I decided to stay the course, and while it has been a meandering one, it has led me here to Budapest, essentially living my dream life.
But musicology isn’t about me living my dream. It should be about me contributing something meaningful and lasting to the musical world. As have I spoken with mentors over the years, many expressed a desire to break with the ivory tower approach to scholarship and write for a wider audience. They (and I!) do not negate the importance of literature written for a rarified group, and one can’t help but despair that so much fascinating research lies fallow on library shelves. No one wakes up in the morning with the desire to write articles and books no one reads. But before we can convince people of the importance and usefulness of musicological research, we first need to communicate what it is all about.
So what is “musicology”? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, for musicology can mean as many things to as many scholars as are working. It’s truly a dynamic field that can apply many a different approach to the study of music, from feminist/gender theory, to neuroscience, to art history, to biography, to social history, to philosophy, and anything and everything in between. Many, however, even in music, see the field as superfluous. Music is to be played, to be heard, to be felt, not nit picked apart and scrutinized. I have serious reservations, however, about the sentiment that examining music more closely does anything but enrich the experience.
While at a concert the other night that celebrated composer József Sári (contemporary music, but accessible; the composer never sacrificed the beauty of an instrument for novelty) I had pause to consider an interesting parallel to the job of a musicologist. The evening started with a string quartet, which oddly was led by a conductor. I was frustrated at first by the presence of a conductor in chamber music, regardless of the difficulty of the work. But as the quartet unfolded, I appreciated him more and more. He did not conduct in a typical way, and he was not there to pound the beat. Rather, he engaged in a sort of interpretive dance that at once kept the ensemble together (his cues were some of the more interesting and artful I have seen) while it seemed as if he caused the music to spontaneously erupt from the instruments. It was interpretation and creation, performance and scholarship, observation and participation all at once. I found myself watching him exclusively, as his gyrations provided me with a sort of map that kept me oriented and constantly engaged throughout the long work. Through him I saw patterns and cohesion that otherwise might have washed right by me.
A musicologist might be thought of as akin to a conductor of a string quartet. To most it may appear bizarre and unnecessary, but they can play a crucial role in the dissemination, appreciation, and understanding of a piece of music. Music can be so grand and often so complex that just listening to it cold, as it were, can yield disappointing results. A musicologist engages in a sort of academic interpretive dance, studying every aspect of a work, a milieu, a school, etc. to then write something that provides tools to unlock a complicated piece, or illuminates an epoch or composer and broadens our understanding and, for me at any rate, enriches our lives.
I could site study after study that have given me insights that utterly changed my view of a work, but I’ll share one specific experience. I was preparing to give preconcert lectures for Anchorage Opera’s production of Die Zauberflöte and I was struggling to orient my thoughts and even make sense of some of the stranger aspects of the opera. For me the confusion began with the opening where Tamino runs from a giant snake. The monster is about to kill the protagonist, we assume, when three servants of the Queen of the Night appear and slay the serpent and recruit Tamino to their mission to recapture Pamina. No explanation is given, and I had been frustrated many times trying to figure out why the opera opens this way. As I surveyed musicological research on the opera, I read several articles that helped me understand the metaphorical meaning of the snake. To many cultures the snake represents enlightenment and rebirth, the keeper of wisdom (Joseph Campbell fans perk up). Tamino, on his archetypal ‘hero journey’ had sought wisdom from the snake, but something went awry. The three ladies take advantage of the situation, kill the snake to prevent Tamino from finding the truth, and appropriate his hero journey to their ends. Equipped with that lens, the rest of the opera opened up to me as I saw the embedded metaphors, not just the obvious Masonic references, but the deeper semiotic implications. I finally understood why this strange opera was the favorite of so many of history’s great composers. And my lectures, I must say, were a hit. So if you could spend two hours on JSTOR reading some articles that completely transform your appreciation of a piece of music, why wouldn’t you? Sure wouldn’t hurt some opera directors…