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Music, politics and the importance of understanding the text

Tuesday, May 16, 2023 - 16:30 to 17:30
Berrill Lecture Theatre, Walton Hall, Open University, MK6 7AA

Music, politics and the importance of understanding the text is a joint inaugural lecture delivered by Elaine Moohan, Professor of Musicology and Byron Dueck, Professor of Music in The Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, who will present their research into religious music from Scotland, England and Cameroon. They will explore historical arguments about the understandability of the words in this music, as well as the consequences of these arguments for how music was subsequently composed.

Robert Johnson (fl. 1520s-1560s), composing sacred music in a time of religious change - Elaine Moohan, Professor of Musicology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Robert Johnson (fl. 1520s-1560s) was a priest and composer from Duns in the Scottish borders, and therefore involved in liturgy at a time of change across Europe. The Catholic Rite in Latin was being challenged as inaccessible and the contrapuntal sacred music associated with its liturgy increasingly came under scrutiny for the lack of intelligibility of the text from those within the Catholic Church and others who worked for reforms.

In Scotland, an Act of the Parliament of Scotland entered in July 1525 defends the status quo, making it clear that anyone found in possession of books contrary to what is described as ‘the Christian faith’ would face imprisonment for heresy, with the works of Luther given particular attention. This included owning liturgical books in the vernacular, that is in Scots or English, and by extension, composing sacred music that set a text translated from Latin. By 1543, there was some loosening of this stance, and those who held copies of ‘the holy scripture … in English or Scots’ were found not to have committed a crime.

At about the same time in England, work was in progress to create a liturgy in English supported by music written in a simper style, a style that ‘would not be full of notes [but instead had] … for every syllable a note,’ that allowed the text to be ‘sung distinctly and devoutly.’

Professor Moohan will explore Johnson’s career and his sacred music in this context of religious change and suggest some reasons for his shift from writing contrapuntal Latin motets to simpler settings of English anthems.

Tone, tune and textual comprehensibility in central Cameroonian music - Byron Dueck, Professor of Music, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Across the Centre Region of Cameroon, songs performed in local languages and styles and accompanied by xylophone ensembles can be heard in community celebrations, funerary rites, nightclubs and the Catholic liturgy.

This neo-traditional music flourishes in part thanks to a burst of creative activity that began among Cameroonian Catholic musicians in the 1950s, resulting in the composition of many new songs in Indigenous languages and musical styles. These songs were soon much more widely sung than their antecedents – European hymns with words in Cameroonian languages – and musicians have continued to compose new ones ever since.

From one perspective, this turn to tradition was justified by official church pronouncements. For example, a 1955 encyclical by Pope Pius XII proclaimed that people in lands where missionary work was conducted should be able to hear sacred music ‘in a language and in melodies familiar to them’ (1955: §70).

Yet when Cameroonian commentators narrate the emergence of a first generation of Cameroonian composers of sacred music, they focus above all on how this solved a problem involving textual comprehensibility. Why has this been the preferred explanation?

Part of it has to do with the Cameroonian languages in question, which are tonal languages in which the pitch of syllables relative to one another helps to determine meaning. When Cameroonian words are set to European hymn melodies, a common argument goes, they became unintelligible because the melodies do not match the tonal contours of the words. Another reason the discourse centres on textual comprehensibility involves European prejudices about African music.

In exploring these issues, Professor Dueck will draw on analyses of Central Cameroonian songs to demonstrate correspondences between the tonal contours of the words and the melodic contours of the music. He will also interrogate European attitudes towards Cameroonian music, considering the special advantages that arguments based on the comprehensibility of the text have had over arguments involving the value of musical diversity and tradition.



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Timings Item
16:30 - 17:20 Inaugural lecture: Music, politics and the importance of understanding the text
17:20 - 17:30 Q&A
17:30 - 18:30 Refreshments