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Home / News / CWRU researchers take home American Musicological Society honors

CWRU researchers take home American Musicological Society honors

Posted on November 15, 2012

Research papers by Case Western Reserve University scholars—one on the melodic chirps of insects, another on the similarities of 16th century Roman secular and religious music—have earned prestigious honors from the American Musicological Society.

Francesca Brittan
, assistant professor of musicology, received the Alfred Einstein Award for the best article by a scholar in his or her early career. Brittan’s investigation of the intersection of science and music in fairy compositions appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society under the title “On Microscopic Hearing: Fairy Magic, Natural Science, and the Scherzo Fantastique.”

“For a society of 3,600 members and only one award given each year, it’s a tremendous distinction for a department to have any (Einstein) winner at all, but for us to have two in the last few years is nothing short of stupendous,” says Ross Duffin, Fynette H. Kulas Professor and interim music department chair.

David Rothenberg, associate professor of music, won an Einstein in 2007.

And Case Western Reserve doctoral student Barbara Swanson received the Paul A. Pisk Prize for her paper at the recent AMS meeting, “Old Chant, New Songs: Plainchant and Monody in Early Modern Rome.” The work was based on her dissertation in progress.

Previous Pisk Prize winners have represented the University of Chicago, Harvard, Berkeley, Cornell and Yale, among others.

“Our young faculty and our students are fantastic, and we are pleased to have the recognition for them through these awards,” Duffin says. “It’s nice to see us taking our place in that group of traditionally outstanding schools.”

Fairy Music or Insect Songs

In her award-winning article, Brittan examines the intersection of music and science in the 19th century and how that influenced new ways of listening and composing, encouraging musicians to combine natural and aesthetic soundworlds in their works.

“Rather than simply scientific, the miniature worlds of insects and plants were perceived as magical,” Brittan says.

At the time, people imagined butterflies and bees as little fairies upon their magical carpets of flower petals.

“Composers responded keenly,” Brittan says. “Looking at scientific instruments and models explains much about the novel textures, harmonies and timbres that begin to infiltrate their works in the early decades of the 19th century.”

“What is important about fairy music in pieces like Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture,” Brittan says, “is that it encourages us to examine the relationship between aesthetic and scientific pursuits—to recognize how music, art, literature and science intertwined instead of existing separately.” She finds this particularly important at a university where science is strong, yet often separate from, music.

To invite this very conversation, Brittan received a Glennan Fellowship last year to develop a new course called, “Music and the History of Science,” which she is currently teaching.

Plainchants and Early Opera

Swanson, a Canadian graduate student in her sixth year of doctoral studies, has immersed herself in 400-year-old Italian music documents at the Vatican library, Biblioteca Nazionale and Biblioteca Vallicelliana (and several major libraries and collections in the United States) to learn more about plainchant in early modern Rome and its relationship to expressive styles of solo singing that emerged around the year 1600.

As Swanson says, “The chants of the Catholic Church and expressive solo songs of early opera may seem quite different, but in late 16th century Italy, their practitioners begin to share strategies for moving the emotions of listeners.”

“Swanson’s innovative work is forcing a complete reexamination of the relationship between sacred and secular music at that critical time in the history of music,” Duffin says.