Old Friends

Jonathan Bellman

Recently I was serving on a doctoral committee for an oral comprehensive exam. (Yes, I know, very generous of me to do so when I was on my sabbatical—just trying to be British about it. Meanwhile, I’ll just sit here and await my substantial yearly pension, government grant, and Purple Heart.) One of the really enjoyable things about teaching, particularly on the graduate level, is when students—on their own—happen upon sources or authors or artists you know well and respect, and lively conversation results. This is one of the ways they consciously or unconsciously demonstrate that they are no longer really students, but rather (so to speak) apprentice equals. Your responsibilities for guidance, mentoring, and evaluation remain the same, but you’re watching the butterfly dry its wings in preparation for glorious flight, not insisting the caterpillar eat its damned leaves. You can imagine which one is more fulfilling.

Anyway, in connection with a question (not mine) about vibrato, the candidate brought up Caccini and his 1601 publication Le nuove musiche, a collection of his compositions with an introduction that addresses a variety of performance issues. I listened approvingly; this was mother’s milk in the Stanford doctoral program in performance practices, so I was on home turf. What surprised me was when he brought up Bénigne de Bacilly (?1625–1690), the author of a French treatise on singing; this is less well known, but had been central to one my wife’s research projects. I had to crush the temptation to chirp, “Bacilly! Oh, hell, yes! What a cat. We go back to grad school, y’know? Ah, the time we spent with him…did he really say that, about singers just not knowing the intervals? Well, ol’ Bénigne always had a way with words…” Like an old drinking buddy. So this guy knows Bacilly too. Yeah!

So I mentioned it to the thrice-feared Prof. Kauffman at home this evening. She rejoined with a story about one of the grad students in her Baroque Period seminar, who was looking for appropriate vocal recordings of that repertoire, after the painstaking performance practice explanations in class. “Honestly!” fumed the student. “You’d think that respected professional singers like Bartoli and Fleming, who are paid to sing this repertoire in a responsible, informed way, would sing differently.” (We wouldn’t think that at all, but do not want to voice the opinion either.) “The only one I really like, the one who really gets it, is Julianne Baird…”  Well. Julianne Baird is much admired in our house, and in fact Debbie coached with her some, so this was the right name to mention. I can just see the smile that must have rewarded that comment.

And one more—I guess, since I’m thinking a lot about Chopin’s Second Ballade these days, we’ll say I’m ending on a somber A Minor, not the sweet and pleasant F Major in which I began. (I’ve probably mentioned this before, but it is relevant here.) Every time a student says, in my Romantic Period seminar, “You know, Dr. Bellman, I came upon this really interesting article by John Daverio,” I have to blink a bit rapidly and swallow. John Daverio was a professor at Boston University—and, incidentally, an absolute prince of a human being—whose tragic and unexplained death in 2003 left a gaping hole in the study of the Romantic period. His three books are absolute classics, must-reads, and it is not as if other people (myself included) can just simply step up. His perspective was the product of a uniquely discerning eye, a brilliant mind, but above all an absolute passion for the music, and he continues to be much missed in the field. So when his name comes up in class, I really do smile—of course, I know that article; I’m glad you found it. Brilliant, no? So is all John’s other stuff. Yes, this is exactly what you should be looking at. And I sigh, too. The smile, and the sigh. Somehow thinking of old friends has to involve both.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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