Howling and Barking in Oxford

The last few months have been a flurry of activity and travel during which I was visitor at the University of Oxford. As I race towards Rome at 250 kilometres per hour on a Frecciarossa train on the last leg of my travels in Europe with Christmas just around the corner, I find myself reflecting on my time as International Research Visitor in the Balzan Programme in Musicology “Towards a Global History of Music”. After he received the Balzan Prize for his service to Musicology in 2012, Reinhard Strohm established the Balzan Programme in Musicology, 2013 to 2016. The goal of this excellent project, whose nature is global in scope, is to bring together mid-career music historians working on topics that will contribute to the research question of how might musicology in the 21st century move towards a global history of music. The discipline of musicology has been traditionally Eurocentric in its orientation, although there are many notable histories of musics of other peoples of the world written by Europeans or those from a European-based culture. Even as I write these words, I am struck by the difficulty with which I might begin to describe music history outside or—more importantly—in concert with European music. The very fact that I have resorted to the adjective “other” hints at some of the difficulties.

One question that might be asked is how might music historians begin revising the traditional history of European music and its place in the world. Realising that—in terms of history and even in the present day—European music and its traditions represent only a fraction of the world’s musical traditions forces music historians to ask how might a different account of European music and its relation with the world’s musical traditions be written? What if music history begins to be written from the perspective of different peoples? To adapt Reinhard Strohm’s own words, how might “post-European historical thinking” benefit music history? Several particularly rich approaches exist for enquiry along these lines, but here I focus on two of them with respect to the late middle ages. One is investigating accounts of musical encounters between cultures and the another is evaluating evidence of ongoing cultural interrelations which also include musical practices.

One historical phenomenon that I stumbled upon a few years ago almost by accident highlighted the importance of examining musical encounters in a crucial period of interaction between Europe and Asia. The period between around 1250 and 1350 marks a unique opportunity for examining early relations between world cultures. This period witnesses the rise and fall of one of world history’s largest empires, the Mongol Empire. The greatest extent of this empire was reached around 1268 when the Mongols in the middle East were stopped in their tracks by the Mamluk army. Despite the fact that Gheghis Khan had conquered most of Northern Asia during his life time, European powers only became aware of their existence in 1241 when the armies of Batu Khan entered Hungary and Poland, roundly defeating two European armies. It seems that a combination of factors, including the death of the Great Khan Ögedai, resulted in the retreat of the Mongols from Europe in 1242, much to Europe’s relief.

Whatever the reason for the Mongols leaving off their conquest of Europe, relations between the Latin West and the Mongols seems to have changed soon after 1242. Two groups recognised the opportunities before them. First merchants once again exploited the old routes to the Far East––which a nineteenth century history rather unhelpfully named “The Silk Road”––that had reopened after half a millennium following the Mongol conquest of Central Asia. (The closure of these trade routes over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries provided an important stimulus for European exploration that culminated in 1492 in the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus who was seeking a westward passage to China.) In the footsteps of traders came the mendicant friars, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, both new orders established by their charismatic founders in the early thirteenth century. Both orders from their earliest days had set out to evangelise the people of Europe and even those beyond the borders of the Latin West. The Franciscans followed the example of their founder, Saint Francis, who preached to the Sultan of Egypt in 1218 at Damietta. The resolution of the Council of Lyon in 1245 to combat heresy also encouraged the friars, including the commissioning of several missions to the East by Pope Innocent IV. Oddly enough, toleration for other religions within the Mongol empire—a precept that Ghenghis Khan had established—benefited these missions, although early missionaries struggled sometimes to establish their credentials as holymen.

To get to the point, one of the results of these missions to the East was a series of accounts in which Dominican or Franciscan friars describe what they saw and heard. One of the earliest is that of Simon of Saint-Quentin which I discuss in a forthcoming article in Viator. Simon has few kind worlds for Mongol singing that he describes as sounding like bulls bellowing or wolves howling. Not exactly off to a good start. (On the other hand Europeans also describe their own singing sometimes in these terms!) William of Rubruck, a Franciscan who voluntarily led a mission to the East eventually found himself in the then-capital of the Mongol Empire Qaraqorum. He has few things to say about the singing that he heard in the East, but went to considerable trouble to describe what he and his companions sang to the Great Khan and other officials.

Thirteenth-century encounters between missionaries soon transformed into ongoing intercultural relations as friars established new convents and travelled extensively in the East. In the early fourteenth century, the first bishop of Beijing (which was known at that time as the new Mongol capital Khanbaliq) Giovanni de’ Montecorvini wrote about teaching young Mongols Latin chant. Another Franciscan traveller, who relies on the Franciscan convents now dotted across the map of East Asia, gives a vivid account of Mongol court singing. And he even express his delight in listening to it, albeit with a qualification that was possibly intended to signal to his reader and Franciscan superiors that he wasn’t about to succumb the illicit charms of the East. There is another very important piece of evidence for cultural contacts between Franciscans and Mongols in the Western Asia, but I will spare you the reader from its details until a later date.

MongolsHowlingFlyerAt any rate, these and other details of East-West musical relations in the thirteenth and fourteenth century were the subject of a paper that I gave at a workshop entitled entitled “Mongols Howling, Latins Barking”: Voice and Song in Early Musical Encounters in Pre-colonial Eurasia that I convened 2 December 2013 at the Faculty of Music, University of Oxford. I was aware of other researchers who were also examining East-West musical relations in the middle ages but in areas different from mine, so I asked them and experts on Eurasian history to contribute to the workshop. Distinguished speakers included Charles Burnett, Manuel Pedro Ferreira, Felicitas Schmieder and Catherine Holmes, who joined us for a two-hour roundtable at the conclusion of the day. Geographically and chronologically topics ranged ranged from the twelfth-century Andalusia/Mahgreb to seventeenth-century feudal Japan. Not wishing to steal their thunder, I won’t go into the details of speakers’ papers except to say that they revealed a range of topics and approaches (often with a humorous touch as in the case of Charles Burnett’s reference to early Japanese descriptions of Western music as “noisy” and its polyphony incomprehensible) which showed that it was possible to begin to discuss important issues like encounters and interactions at this very early period in the global history of music. Speakers also showed that over time and with sufficient ongoing intercultural relations, mutual appreciation of each other’s initially confronting music could occur. Schmieder and Holmes admirably grounded the discussion of music historians by providing perspectives (and new conceptual frameworks!) from their respective areas of research. More on these also at a later date.

For L to R: Catherine Holmes, Charles Burnett, Manuel Pedro Ferreira, Felicitas Schmeider, Jason Stoessel and Reinhard Strohm. Photo by Marie-Alice Frappat

As the first workshop in the Balzan Programme in Musicology, this was just the beginning of what is destined to be a serious refocusing of musicology to the challenges of global history. At this stage researchers are discovering as many answers to questions they have before them, and undoubtedly these questions will continue to evolve and change over time as other researchers in the Balzan Programme in Musicology and beyond contribute in their own way to this ground-breaking project envisioned by Strohm.

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