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.

One Reply to “Eight Hundred Year’s Young”

  1. Thanks for this post on Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty and your time there, David, I enjoyed it very much! My moth­er stud­ied Eng­lish at Cam­bridge in the ear­ly 60s, and loved it so much that she moved back there in 2004 at age 68. She now teach­es “Myths, Fairy Tales and Lost Reli­gions”, “Art, Design and Pol­i­tics in the Ven­er­a­ble Bede’s His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Church and Peo­ple” and “Old Eng­lish Poet­ry Redis­cov­ered” as well as tak­ing class­es her­self in Latin, Greek and Old Ice­landic (!) at Cam­bridge’s “Uni­ver­si­ty of the Third Age” for “those no longer in full employment.” 

    When I vis­it­ed her I got to meet a first cousin my age who plays and teach­es cel­lo in Cam­bridge, and in her free time stud­ies Old English–another typ­i­cal Cam­bridge resident!

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