My education: Cambridge

When I had completed the requirements for my Master’s degree at the Royal College of Music, I intended primarily to continue, and hopefully expand, the freelance performing work as a pianist and organist that I had been doing throughout my time at the RCM. However, I also felt that I did not want to rule out opportunities for further musicological research, which would require a continuing institutional affiliation. It was with this in mind that I decided to undertake a period of postgraduate research at the University of Cambridge, which I would pursue during the Michaelmas Term of 1996.

At that time, the Music Faculty at Cambridge gave limited emphasis to the performance of music as part of its curriculums. However, it had been the home of some significant work in eighteenth-century historical musicology, organology and performance practice concerned with Mozart’s keyboard music, much of which I had encountered and referenced in the dissertation I had previously prepared at the RCM on the cadenzas and Eingänge in Mozart’s C minor piano concerto K491. My supervisor at the RCM, Gerald Gifford, had also been a member of the Faculty of Music at Cambridge, although he had retired by the time of my arrival, and he encouraged my application to undertake research under the supervision of the two Cambridge scholars who had published extensively on keyboard performance practice in Mozart.

In general terms, I took the view that membership of the University and of one of the colleges (which is conferred for life at Cambridge) would be a considerable future asset to me in its own right, as would access to the libraries and research collections, which would remain open to me as an alumnus after I had ceased to be a student. If my research developed sufficiently, I considered that it might lead on to book or article publications. Having already earned a research-based master’s degree at the RCM, I had been advised that a doctorate was not necessary and might even be seen as undesirable for teaching positions in the conservatoire sector. I was also aware that so far as Cambridge and the general university sector were concerned, conservatoire people like myself were generally seen as outsiders. With this in mind, I did not become a candidate for a degree at Cambridge, but pursued a shorter and less prescriptive course of study with an open mind as to where it might lead.

My agenda at Cambridge was therefore my own. I chose to follow the curriculum for research master’s students during my term at Cambridge, consisting of research, analysis and seminars, but did not take any exams or formal assessments. I also attended a wide range of lectures and events, and experienced Cambridge’s legendary choral tradition at first hand as well as the variety of worship offered by the various college chapels and churches. I became a life member of both the Union Society and the University Conservative Association, enjoyed a variety of formal dining and was introduced to blind wine tasting.

Matriculation at Christ’s College. I am seated in the front row, tenth from the right.

To my surprise, I found on arrival that I had not been assigned to either of the supervisors whom I had requested, and indeed I was never to meet them. Instead, I was assigned to a supervisor who was wholly unsympathetic to my conservative intellectual approach, uninterested in my proposed research, and with whom I was unable to establish an effective working relationship. This did not entirely prevent me from undertaking useful work during my period of study, but it meant that I did so on my own.

My term at Cambridge was in many respects the most valuable of my education, because its climate of adversity compelled me to define exactly where I stood intellectually and why. The seminars in the Faculty of Music that I attended were dominated by the so-called “new musicology”, to which I was strongly opposed. It seemed to me, and I was not the only one of this opinion, that the Faculty had suddenly found itself in the grip of an ideological craze that had clearly attracted its fair share of zealots. Those who did not share this zeal, including the historical musicologists and performance practice experts who had attracted me to Cambridge in the first place, appeared to be keeping their heads down.

Unlike historical musicology, which is largely an apolitical discipline, the “new musicology” was explicitly political, and the politics behind it were Marxist in origin, having been imported from other disciplines of cultural studies. As an outsider following my own path, I had less to lose than others, and I challenged this robustly. The response I received was in essence that the Faculty was now committed to this particular ideological cause, and that if I did not like it, I could leave. And so I did.

At the conclusion of my studies, I was left with the view that my experience with the Faculty of Music had not been what I had hoped for academically, but that nevertheless I had taken much away with me overall that was worthwhile. I continued to regard the University and my College with affection, and many years later, when living in Norfolk, would often return to Cambridge to enjoy the ambience of the city and its many attractions.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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