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  Anne W. Robertson

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A University's Lexicon


Mr. Randel's Opus

U of C music professor Anne W. Robertson chronicles Don Michael Randel's contributions to musicology.

PHOTO:  Randel booksTo read Don Randel's scholarly work is to taste from a cornucopia of subjects and methodologies that he has addressed over more than three decades. Certain threads draw these endeavors together-for instance, his work on Hispanic and Latin American music, work that ranges from the earliest notated music on the Iberian Peninsula to the most recent living traditions in Central and South America.

Influenced in the mid-1960s by his Princeton mentor Oliver Strunk, a scholar of Byzantine chant, Randel carved out a field that combined his own interest in medieval plainsong with his childhood experience living in a Latin American culture. He wrote on the music of the Mozarabic Rite, a branch of Christian liturgical chant sung in Spain until the late 11th century. Called "Mozarabic" because most of the manuscripts preserving this music date from a time after the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711, this ritual has left behind two dozen or so sources. None uses a musical notation that can be deciphered. Instead, one finds musical symbols (called "neumes") without staff lines, which present graphic, but vertically undifferentiated, notes on the page. Because we cannot be certain of exact pitches, we will never know precisely how the majority of these melodies sound. Randel's Index to the Chant of the Mozarabic Rite (Princeton, 1973), in grappling with this limitation, provided the first comprehensive overview of the entire Mozarabic repertory, showing the variety and richness of these medieval Spanish melodies. Traces of them can still be heard in a few churches in Toledo, Salamanca, and Valladolid. This herculean labor complemented his in-depth study of Mozarabic psalmody, The Responsorial Psalm Tones for the Mozarabic Office, based on his original dissertation and published by Princeton in 1969.

PHOTO:  Randel BookBeginning in the 1970s, Randel's work moved forward in time, focusing on issues of medieval music theory and 15th-century polyphony. Building on his work on Mozarabic music and adding Arabic to the arsenal of foreign languages already at his command (fluent in Spanish, he also has a working knowledge of Italian, French, and German), he studied how the theoretical writings on music by the Muslim scientist and philosopher Al-Farabi (d. 950), translated from Arabic into Latin in the 12th and early 13th centuries, affected Western music theory. His 1971 article in Musical Quarterly, "Emerging Triadic Tonality in the Fifteenth Century," was one of the first to deal with the ways in which musical pitches came to be combined into the vertical, simultaneous sonorities that we now call "triads," the basic building blocks of music. His "Dufay the Reader" (in Music and Language, Studies in Music History 1, New York, 1983) takes the text as point of departure. Here Randel examines the words on their own terms: he shows how the famous early-Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-74) "reads" a poem through his musical setting of it, highlighting points at which the music enhances the syntactical and sonic aspects of the poetry, and vice versa.

As the study of music underwent dramatic changes in the 1980s, Randel added his voice to the debate in his article "The Canons in the Musicological Toolbox" (in Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canon, ed. Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman, University of Chicago Press, 1992), arguing for more inclusive canons of musical scholarship which allow newer attitudes to broaden the traditional working assumptions of musicologists. Among his recommendations, Randel advocates the study of oral as well as fully notated traditions. He likewise suggests that anonymous works of music may have as compelling a story to tell as those whose composers we can easily identify. In addition, he promotes the fostering of topics in music scholarship that would not have been deemed worthy of investigation four or five decades ago-jazz, popular music, even Italian opera.

PHOTO:  Randel bookRandel followed this up with his "Crossing Over with Rubén Blades," one of the first articles on a living, popular tradition ever published by the prestigious Journal of the American Musicological Society (vol. 44 [1991]), a periodical he'd edited from 1972 through 1974. Here he returns once again to the culture of Latin America to discuss Blades's song "Decisiones" from his first solo album for Elektra Records, Buscando America. Randel focuses on Blades's new type of Latin sound-a sound that differs noticeably from that of fixtures of Latin popular music such as El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. The roots of this sound, as Randel finds, lie not in the singer's attempt to portray himself as the "cross over" artist that critics have labeled him, that is, as an artist who appeals to two different audiences. Rather, for Randel, Blades himself is crossing over along with his listeners, a Hispanically based audience and culture that, in recent times, has been infused with many of the same Anglo influences evident in this song.

Most of us have on our bookshelves one or more general works on music, and Randel's scholarship also encompasses the editing of these indispensable books for everyday scholarly use. Until the mid-1980s, the most widely consulted musical dictionary, The Harvard Dictionary of Music, was still circulating in the 1969 edition by Willi Apel. When a short version was needed, Harvard turned to Randel, who edited The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (1978). Asked next by the press to revamp Apel's volume, Randel totally reconceived the work to take account of non-Western traditions, of popular music, and of musical instruments of different cultures. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986) now serves as the standard, convenient guide to music for lay readers, students, performers, composers, scholars, and teachers. To it Randel has recently added The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (1996) and The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1999).

Anne W. Robertson, the Claire Dux Swift professor in music and the College, is the author of The Service Books of the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis: Images of Ritual and Music in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1991).

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