On being a medievalist

Our department chair stopped by my office this morning to ask me to identify and translate the text that appeared on the front of the Christmas card he’d selected for us to give to our departmental administrative assistant. So, I poked around and identified it as a response from Vespers on the first Sunday of Advent, then I wrote a translation in the card, added my own greeting, and handed it back to the chair.

The reason I deem this worthy of a blog post is that the exercise of doing this – digging out my copy of Harper’s The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century, pulling out a copy of the psalms, reminding myself of what it is like to read medieval Latin, especially medieval liturgical Latin, transcribing from a lovely German manuscript (Mainz, 15th century) with square musical notation – has made me homesick for life as a medievalist.

Sure, I have been teaching Old English this semester, but it is very different teaching Old English literature for mostly English majors than reading it with people who also read Latin, Norse, and possibly also Welsh or Irish. I usually define myself as a medievalist when it comes up, not as an English person, but I miss both the companionship and the greater erudition of my medievalist peers. It is all too easy to let my disciplinary knowledge slip away when there is rarely any demand for it. I am extremely lucky to have an academic job, with generous colleagues, and I feel painfully aware of the predicament that most of my grad school friends are in, with full-time jobs hard to come by, even for those who are eminently qualified for them. So, this post is meant as a reminder to myself to make decisions that will allow me to do the work I love. It is easy to forget that I have agency and can do a lot to shape my job satisfaction.

I did fairly well this semester on my plan to start my day in the office with at least an hour of my own research-related work or other professional tasks, although the last few weeks have been a bit dicey in that regard. (In many regards, frankly.) I intend to continue with this scheme in the spring semester, but I think I’m also going to concentrate on finding projects (whether for research, professional development, or for teaching) that let me tap into my broader training as a medievalist.

Working like Bach?

I interrupt my regularly scheduled (if not regularly completed!) posting to contemplate J. S. Bach for a few minutes. Today is his birthday, and since I cannot remember a time when I did not love his music, I always take the excuse to listen to even more of his music on this day than I do on other days. (You could sample some of his choral, orchestral, or keyboard music as a bit of a celebration, too!)

I got to thinking on this date in 2011 (nearing the end of my first, terrifying year as a Visiting Assistant Professor) about how Bach provided an interesting set of analogies for those interested in literary criticism. I know this because I cleverly sent a series of e-mails to myself to record those thoughts before they had a chance to slip away in a sea of good intentions, lack of direction, and even more severe lack of time. This blog will, I hope, solve the problem of a lack of direction, for these and other homeless thoughts. Perhaps I can also use the impetus of another celebration of Bach’s birth to overcome the other two difficulties.

If there is anyone who understands the pressure on academics to regularly produce work of a certain quality, it is a Cantor or Kapellmeister from eighteenth-century Leipzig! Anyone who wrote a cantata for each Sunday and every other holiday in the Lutheran calendar for at least three years running (plus at least two other complete cantata cycles from other periods of his life) surely knows the demands of producing high-quality work under extreme pressure.

I have to admit, I quite like the idea (conceit?) of this professional affinity, but leaving that aside, it seems to me that there are some interesting lessons to be learned from Bach’s music and the legacy of that music. It is true that Bach had a remarkable output, but some of that output in fact consisted of reworkings of earlier pieces. In some cases, this was in fairly strict transcriptions, but at other times, such as when he used what is now known as the “Passion Chorale” as a unifying element within his St. Matthew Passion, the reworkings were truly reworkings. The Passion Chorale is developed throughout the course of the St. Matthew Passion, with different harmonizations (and different keys) each time it is utilized for a different text.

Now, I cannot expect to earn tenure by simply revamping one article over and over, but I, for one, am perfectly content to have more opportunities to hear some beautiful music, even if I’ve heard something similar before. I was thinking, having just attempted to craft a narrative of a coherent research program as part of the dossier for my annual pre-tenure review, that perhaps this is the wrong way to think of the analogy. Perhaps, in the context of a research program whose coherence is based more in a related set of questions than in a single chronological period, the reharmonizing is the application of that intertwined set of concerns to a distinct and more focused topic in a particular article. (Hmmm, is it too late at night for me to be trying to articulate this? Is it just a terrible and silly idea to begin with?) I’m at the stage of my career where the harmonies (or at least the relations between different harmonizations) are still tentative, contingent upon the success of a couple of specific “reharmonizations.” I’d like to think that there will come a day when my reharmonizations will have achieved the degree of creativity shown in the reworkings of Bach’s music by some other musicians – if you don’t feel anything when you listen to Nina Simone improvising in the middle of “Love Me or Leave Me,” well, then I’m not sure that you have a soul – but I suspect that it will take me some time to even come close. For now, here’s a heartfelt “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” to the greatest of them all.