I am a historical musicologist who, for most of his active career, specialized in music of the period 1420-1520. In recent years I have expanded the sphere of my research interests to include Ars Antiqua polyphony, roughly from the period 1160-1320. Although both periods fall under the broad category of “the Middle Ages,” you could scarcely find two more different musical cultures in European history. The two periods present very different challenges for the scholar and musician, differences that force us to ask tough questions as to what we understand music to be, what we expect it to accomplish, and how it affects us as performers and listeners.
Not every graduate student comes to Princeton with a background in Medieval music history or the intention to become a specialist in that period. Yet even for those with interests in other periods, seminars on Medieval music may be as enlightening as it would be, say, to spend a year in a foreign country, to learn its language, and to come to understand its riches, contradictions, and absurdities. I speak from experience here, since I am a Dutchman who took postgraduate degrees at the Universities of Manchester and Amsterdam, then became a Research Fellow at Oxford, and finally moved to Princeton University. If there is one thing I regret about my career, it is that I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know more countries as intimately as I have in England and the US. The experience of living here has enriched my life in ways that I hope Medieval music might enrich yours.
The analogy of residence in a foreign country is appropriate: you get to know a country by visiting places and meeting individuals, both of which may force you to reconsider whatever generalisations or prejudices you might have been led to accept at home. As much as possible, I like to bring the encounter with history back to that level of concreteness, the level where historical actors don’t always do the things you’d expect them to. Historical materials—documents, treatises, musical sources—offer innumerable opportunities for concrete encounters, if only we can step away from the sweeping historical interpretations rehearsed in our survey course textbooks. In my seminars as well as in my published research, I tend to pursue opportunities of that kind, sometimes with surprising or even paradoxical results. Doing so, for me, brings an element of adventure to the encounter with history. It’s one reason why I love my job.