The Great Scores: A place for music history in the Great Books curriculum
by Carmen Gudino
When I found out that Professor Luko wanted me to help her redesign the third year music history course for Humanities students at Carleton, I knew that it was an opportunity for something special. I am just about to start my final year in the Humanities program and I am already in reflection mode, asking myself what my education for the last three years has meant to me and, more specifically, how each course I’ve taken has contributed something unique to my worldview. For each of the Humanities courses I’ve taken, I can answer this last question with confidence. And after a summer of working with Professor Luko on her music history course, I can answer it more confidently than ever.
How does knowledge of music history fit into the Humanities curriculum? Students who have taken HUMS 3102: Western Music 1000-1850 in the past may have wondered this, especially since many Humanities students have never studied music before. Professor Luko’s and my work this summer centered around this core issue. While HUMS 3102 used to be a stand-alone music history survey course, our goal was to restructure it so that there were stronger ties to other facets of the Humanities curriculum, including philosophy, literature, religion, and art history.
This meant that the first phase of my work was to review lecture notes from all of the Humanities courses I have taken thus far. As I compiled book lists, class notes, and important themes from all of the first through third year HUMS courses, Professor Luko and I brainstormed areas of crossover with the history of Western music from Ancient Greece to the Classical period. During this phase of collaborative brainstorming, we made countless discoveries. The following were some of the most striking…
In the third year core course, HUMS 3000: Culture and Imagination, students read Martin Luther’s Freedom of a Christian and discuss how Luther’s ideas about faith and salvation stood in opposition to those held by the Catholic Church. As it turns out, the Lutheran idea of justification by faith alone (Justificatio sola fide) is one that comes up again and again in the music of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s cantatas, especially, are rich in Lutheran theology. Drawing on this connection between the two courses, Professor Luko and I developed an assignment for students that requires them to think critically about how Bach used music to portray theological content.
Another crossover occurred with the second year course, HUMS 2000: Reason and Revelation. Students in HUMS 2000 study Dante’s Divine Comedy as a crucial contribution to the history of philosophy and religion. What interested Professor Luko and me this summer, however, was how Dante’s characterization of each level of the after-life drew on music history. In each the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, the presence of music (especially liturgical songs) or its absence has significant implications for Dante’s message — for this reason, Professor Luko and I developed a series of readings and discussion prompts that link the students’ knowledge of Dante to the world of music.
In addition to making links between music history and other Humanities courses, we made it a priority to link history to the present day. Connections between the period of music history studied (1000-1850) and the present could be nuanced — as in the comparison of music during the Plague vs. today’s pandemic — or more explicit — as in the use of the Gregorian chant Dies irae in today’s films. In the newly-designed course, connections to the modern day (and to the rest of the Humanities curriculum) act as a springboard for discussion, so that future students taking the class feel they have some familiarity with the course content even if they have never studied music.
For me, the value of our research this summer went beyond the discovery of connections between music history, other Humanities subjects, and the modern day. Because of my own background and life experience, some topics of research this summer struck a unique chord with me. At one point, prompted by the music of Hildegard von Bingen, I unexpectedly fell down a rabbit hole of Christian mysticism and creation spirituality and brought my sister along with me. I emerged with a few exciting new books on my shelf and she with the seeds of an idea for a tarot deck based on illustrations from the Scivias. Every student has their own niche interests and my hope is that future students will be open to finding that unique overlap between their interests and music history!
Although the Students as Partners Program has come to an end, our project in some ways has only just begun. The ultimate test of our new curriculum is going to be its viability in real time with this year’s HUMS 3102 class. In the coming months, feedback from the students will allow Professor Luko to make adjustments that ensure the best possible learning experience for them. And I feel both happy and honoured to say that, since she and I plan to keep in close contact this term, I will continue to be included in the process of bettering the course for future Humanities students.