On Music, the Early Modern World and New York City

In conversation with David Burn, the 2020 Queen Wilhelmina Visiting Professor of the History, Language and Literature of the Dutch Speaking People at Columbia University. 

Ayana Dootalieva
February 07, 2020

Introducing David Burn

Musicologist David Burn joins the European Institute this spring to teach a course on “Music, Musicians, and Mobility in the Early Modern Period”. David Burn is temporarily on leave from the University of Leuven to take on the distinction of Queen Wilhelmina Visiting Professor at Columbia University, where he incorporates in his teachings prior research on early modern music and mobility. In an interview with the European Institute, David Burn talked about his course at Columbia, his research, and impressions of New York City.

Musicology course at Columbia University

The course “Music, Musicians, and Mobility in the Early Modern Period” is designed for students from any discipline, as it “focuses on the social, cultural, anthropological and historical aspects of music rather than on technical musical analysis.” David Burn is especially interested in teaching this course as it not only focuses on Europe but takes a global perspective on music, currently a hot topic in the field of musicology. “The late 15th through the 16th century is a period of discovery and expanding of horizons for Europe which includes both the colonization of Central and South America, and missionary activities to Japan, China and the Philippines. In that sense it is strange that this is left out of usual music history, even though it is a fundamental part of the social and cultural makeup of the Early Modern world.

Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac and Japan

The mobility aspect of this course allows Professor Burn to come back to a topic that has interested him for years, particularly during his time at Oxford University where he obtained a doctorate on the work of Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac. “We do not know where he came from but he probably must have lived in Ghent or Bruges before being recruited as a singer by the Medici to the Baptistery of the City of Florence. At that point in his life he must have been 20 years old.” In the 1490's, Florence was taken over by strict religious law that prohibited complicated music, forcing Isaac to take another position which he found with the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna. “He ended up playing a very significant role in modernizing German speaking countries at that time, before going back to Florence to spend his remaining years there.”

In the period between his doctorate and post-doctoral research back at Oxford, David obtained a completely different experience. In 2002-2003 he conducted research at Kyoto City University of Arts on Western and Japanese contacts in the 16th century. This period is characterized by movements in both directions. The West’s missionary work in Japan resulted in a return visit from a group of Japanese nobility who travelled across Europe and eventually ended up in the Vatican. “They caused an absolute sensation everywhere they went! They were musically trained in Western methods and even sang for the Pope. While this story is not very well known, it has been an important part of the 16th century.”

His research on the work and life of Heinrich Isaac is the reason David Burn joined the University of Leuven in 2007. Research on Low Countries musicians has been a strong point of the Leuven musicology department since its founding in 1944. “Early modern musicians from the Low Countries almost exclusively dominated the mainstream European music stage. While new trends took over in the 17th century, the 15th and 16th centuries were the high point of Flemish music .”

The Sound of Music

"THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Innovative research and valorization of Gregorian chant through digital technology” is a new major project David is working on, in cooperation with the Musicology and Engineering Departments of the University of Leuven, the Alamire Foundation and McGill University in Canada. The project concerns late Gregorian chant, meaning any chant from the 15th-17th centuries. The first purpose of this project is to acquire basic historical knowledge so to address the research gap in this field. Gregorian chant will then be valorized and presented to the public. “There is actually a public interested in Gregorian Chant. Monks in Spain have a platinum recording of Gregorian chant and we also work closely with ensembles that perform sold out concerts.

There is also a technological component to this project related to the application of primary digital tools for the purpose of digital humanities research. Engineers will thus develop tools for the digital analysis of music and optical character recognition.

David emphasizes that research should have some broader social resonance and not remain within the confines of the academy. “Music is a good way to do that because you can research it, give concerts and workshops, and experiment with it in a laboratory setting.

What students learn

I hope students will be trained in generic and specific skills.” Among the students in this seminar, some are musicologists, others do not have any formal training in music. Some are graduate and others are undergraduate students. They have different experiences in individual research.

An average musician is generally not trained in older music.” Even musicologists will learn about the different kinds of repertory, the cultural systems supporting the production of music and music’s social function. “Music can express social identity, it can have a representative function, political functions and other things the majority of students are not aware of.” Students will learn about the methods of musicology, as a cultural discipline. Participants will also obtain generic skills, including reading and understanding sources with a critical eye.

 “And I hope that they’ll enjoy it, above all!” (laughs)

On New York City

In David’s words: “I am very glad to be here, not only to spread my own work but for the enriching experience. Out of all places, I could easily fill in an entire week with concerts and exhibitions which is fantastic! The Visiting Professorship is a great cultural ambassador scheme, so when I go back to Leuven, I will try to take back my experiences to them.”

One such rich and exciting New York event will take place on April 22nd in connection with David’s professorship: a public lecture-recital together with the Belgian ensemble Ratas del viejo mundo. The event will focus on music at the court of the northern-Italian city of Parma in the sixteenth century, and on mobility between the court and the Low Countries. In particular, the event will feature music by Cipriano de Rore, a pioneering 16th-century Flemish composer who spent the final part of his career in Parma. The event will take place at the Millbank Chapel in Teacher’s College. David Burn recommends anyone interested to attend.