Emma Dillon: Remembering to Forget Seminar October 1 2013

Tuesday 1st October 2013
5pm, ArtsTwo 3.16
Queen Mary, University of London
Mile End Road E1 4NS

Please join Queen Mary’s Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies and QM Music and Sound for the first event of the 2013 academic year. Followed by wine and discussion. Attendance is free; all welcome.

Remembering to Forget: Music, Conversion, and the Early Cistercian Experience

The Cistercian order emerged at the end of the eleventh century, purportedly as a reaction against the decadent excesses associated with the Cluniac tradition. According to the foundational theological and administrative writings of the order, to be Cistercian was to convert; and to convert was to actively forget the trappings of a former religious or secular life. The narrative of conversion and reform appears to correspond to other evidence that early Cistercian houses promoted a reactionary austerity, eschewing decadent material trappings of devotion in favor of a simpler and less distracting devotional environment. That impulse was seemingly true of music: Cistercian liturgy is well-known in the history of medieval chant for its reforms, manifest, for example, in an expunging of melodic ornament and a ban on polyphony.

This paper takes a closer look at the evidence of contemporary writers, music theory and extant liturgical manuscripts and suggests that reforming chant was less an act of erasure or displacement of past traditions. Instead, it argues that there was potentially a virtue in remembering what one was supposed to forget. The paper will draw on materials dating from the mid-twelfth century, when ideals of the order were being codified (and in some instances even retrospectively forged). These include a famous diatribe against polyphony in Aelred of Rievaulx’s Speculum caritatis. So vivid and precise is Aelred’s account of music-making that the writing itself seems to make music present again. Music’s immediacy is further reinforced by the highly affective language and theology by which Aelred expresses his anxiety about music’s power. It begs the question: why would Aelred so carefully record the sound and effect of what was apparently so dangerous? In exploring potential answers, the paper will locate Aelred’s text in a broader contexts of Cistercian musical reform and the theological tenets of conversion. While writers like Bernard of Clairvaux and Aelred advocated the value of remembering to forget in the monk’s experience of God, this paper will suggest that habitual practices of singers and scribes offered the community an embodied experience of the spiritual ideals of Cistercian reform and conversion.

Professor Emma Dillon (King’s College London) studied music at Oxford as an undergraduate (1989-1992), went on to completed a DPhil in 1998, and was also the recipient of a Junior Research Fellowship. She worked as a Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol (1998-2000). In 2000 she moved to the United States and joined the Music Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked until 2012 first as an Assistant Professor and later as a Full Professor, and where she also served as Chair of the Department. She has also been a Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a Member and Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Studies (School of Historical Studies) in Princeton, and a Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. She joined the Music Department at King’s in 2013, and is also an active member of the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies.