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.