Eight Hundred Year’s Young

800 Year's Old

I’m going to do a little reminiscing, but for a good reason, as you’ll see a little further on. Anyway, one of the best things I ever got to do in my life was study at Cambridge University. I went there for my Master’s degree. Intellectually, it was one of the most intense and stimulating experiences I’ve ever had.  The way that graduate school at Cambridge worked was different from any other school I’ve attended, before or since.

First of all, I had a Tutor assigned to me that I met with weekly or a couple of times a week. They were to help guide me in my research, typically focusing on a key area or subject. My subject of concentration for my Masters studies was the music, time, and cultural environment of the composer Alexander Scriabin, as well as the theosophists and other French and Russian spiritual and literary movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My tutor, Alexander Goehr, was also my Composition teacher, and he was like no other teacher I’d ever had (or had since). He challenged every assumption I ever had about music, theory or historical study, forcing me to stretch intellectually.

Depending on your degree — mine a ‘Master of Philosophy’ in Music – but the degree didn’t have anything to do with ‘Philosophy’, any more than a PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy — you had some significant project to finish.  In my case, it was a portfolio of music that I had to write during my year there (That was fine with me; I wanted to write music anyway.) I also had a series of essays to write at the end, so I spent a couple of pretty grueling days in a room doing nothing but handwriting in little blue essay books.

So here’s where the really unique part of a Cambridge comes into play — Intellectual freedom on a level I’d never seen: Along with my tutorial sessions with Professor Goehr, I was free to go to any lecture given anywhere in the University on any subject that interested me. Sometimes the lectures were on musical subjects, including a series of spectacular lectures on composers throughout history by the composer Robin Holloway, but sometimes it had little or nothing to do with music. I vividly remember a set of lectures on the Dutch Art and Architecture movement called De Stijl, a brief period from 1917 to 1931, whose followers included the painter, designer, writer, and critic Theo van Doesburg (who published a journal by the same name), the painter Piet Mondrian and the architect Gerrit Rietveld (who build a fascinating geometrically inspired chair, called, innocently enough,  the Red and Blue Chair:

The Red and Blue Chair

The Red and Blue Chair

I also got passionately interested in the Commedia dell’arte, a kind of improvised Italian situation comedy that started in the 16th century with stock characters and shticks, but those stock characters kept turning up later in history from Mozart and Rossini’s operas (The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville) all the way to the setting of Albert Giraud’s Symbolist poetry, Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912).

Commedia dell’Arte troupe Gelosi in a late 16th-century Flemish painting

There were several libraries on campus, including Faculty Libraries for certain subjects, Individual College Libraries, as well as a huge, endearingly ugly architectural monstrosity, the University Library. It was designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who was also known for designing those classic red English public telephone boxes, and it had all of the charm of those ubiquitous symbols of British utilitarian design. Scott is also known for the dark, modern-yet-gothic Bankside Power Station on the Thames that has been since converted into the home for the Tate Modern art Museum in London.

The University Library at Cambridge University

The University Library at Cambridge University

The UL, like the US Library of Congress, got a copy of every book published in England, and you could frequently take out books (although the rarer, older ones obviously had to remain in the building).

So that was it; I wanted to learn? Curious about anything in the world? Go for it. Learn.

I had the academic equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, either in books or lectures, not to mention a train ride away from London to hear concerts or visit museums, which I did several times. I had friends who were studying Metallurgy, Philosophy and Criminology, a good friend who was also a composer (and is now living in Paris), and met many scholars and musicians (I even remember hanging out at the conductor/harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood’s house; his boyfriend at the time was an incredibly good cook.)  At my college, Clare Hall, which was a relatively recent addition to the University, the head of the College was Sir Michael Stoker, a relative of Bram Stoker (yes, the guy who wrote Dracula). I also met the great-nephew of the explorer Ernest Shackleton, Sir Nicholas Shackleton (who died a few years ago after a distinguished career as an expert on climate change and a key figure in the field of palaeoceanography). I remember briefly meeting Professor Stephen Hawking who was faculty at the nearby Gonville and Caius College.  Even my college’s grounds had some claim to fame; one of the college houses, on Harvey Road, was called Keyneside. It was the birthplace of John Maynard Keynes, a famous British economist. You may not have heard of Keynes, but you’ve probably heard of the TARP— the Troubled Assets Relief Program— as well as Obama’s $787 billion fiscal stimulus. Both of those items have been called Keynesian interventions where government intervenes in the activities of markets that are in trouble.

I still get the alumni magazine of Cambridge, and also a smaller yearly magazine from my college, Clare Hall. Over the years they’ve gotten a bit glossier, and my college’s web site is also looking better. The reason that my time there has suddenly jumped to mind is the latest issue of the Cambridge Alumni magazine, CAM, which showed up today.   According to this issue, as well as some extra inserts, this year Cambridge University is celebrating that it turns 800 years old this year. It turns out that in 1209, scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to the ancient Roman trading post of Cambridge and settled there, making that year the earliest record of study in that place.

800? I have to admit feeling a little giddy when I read that number. I don’t know of many things that are 800 year’s old. According to my brief research, the thirteenth century includes several of The Crusades as well as the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, Marco Polo, Genghis Kahn, Kublai Khan, Dante and Alexander Nevsky. It was the century that saw the invention of glass mirrors and eyeglasses, gun powder-fueled rockets (in China and Egypt), and the first Observatory (in Iran).  Cambridge predates The Hundred Year’s War, King John’s signing of the Magna Carta, The Italian Renaissance and just about everything else in history.  Being connected to something that, well, ancient, is unique for me;  I can’t trace my family history to much before World War I. I was born in a relatively young country (the US) and now live in an even younger country, in a city that is one of the youngest and most modern in the world. Boston had somewhat of a feel of history and the patina of Colonial Americana on it, but nothing like 800 years!

So, happy 800th Birthday, ol’ Alma Mater. Too bad I won’t be around to see your 1,000th birthday in 2209, but I’ll bet that if mankind makes it that long, you will.