Mercurial Connections

I teach a course called “Harry Potter and the Middle Ages.” It’s an approach to medieval culture that takes the Harry Potter books as a starting point; we learn about the medieval background to many of the elements JK Rowling used to construct the Harry Potter universe. The course is organized around the Hogwarts curriculum. For example, in conjunction with Care of Magical Creatures, we study medieval bestiaries and medieval map-making (both Fantastic Beasts AND where to find them). Transfiguration and Potions classes offer the opportunity to learn about medieval alchemy.

Alchemy is clearly an important theme in the Harry Potter books, starting with the title and plot of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1 It does not appear to be one of the courses offered at Hogwarts, however; perhaps Rowling wanted to save it for her underlying structure. In any case, learning more about alchemy enhances our understanding of both the Harry Potter books and of the Middle Ages.

The more I read about alchemy, the more I realized that mercury is a key substance in the alchemical worldview. Many medieval and early-modern alchemists hypothesized that the starting point for generating the Philosopher’s Stone was to mix mercury and sulfur (which may or may not refer to the physical substances that go by those names); this is known as the Mercury-Sulfur principle. I also realized that the meaning of Mercury is multivalent, with multiple connections to multiple things. Let’s trace some of those connections. The words in bold face are shown on the accompanying diagram.

Mercury was a Roman god, the Roman counterpart to the Greek messenger god Hermes. In late antiquity, Hermes also became identified with Hermes Trismegistus, or “thrice-blessed Hermes,” a figure to whom many early alchemical writings were attributed, known collectively as the Hermetic corpus and which were influenced by Neo-Platonist thought. This Hermetic tradition is evident in the term used by medieval alchemists to describe what they did to keep air out of a piece of equipment, a term we still use—“hermetically sealed.

In addition to being the name of a god, Mercury is also the name of a planet. Ancient and medieval astrologers believed that the stars and planets influenced life on earth. Which planet a person was born under influences that person’s personality. Someone born under the influence of Jupiter might grow up to be jovial (jolly), while Saturn’s influence would make you saturnine (gloomy). The influence of Mercury, the fastest-moving planet, results in a personality that is mercurial (quick to change).

In ancient cosmology, each of the seven planets was associated with one of the seven metals. (“Planet,” from the Greek for “wanderer,” was the term for any heavenly body that “wandered” in relation to the fixed stars that form the constellations, which stay put. So the Sun and Moon were considered planets, but the stationary Earth was not.) Some of the associations are obvious—gold goes with the sun, silver with the moon. Mars is associated with iron, both because of the planet’s rusty-red color and because the god of war would have used iron weapons. Venus is copper, which in the ancient Mediterranean came from the island of Cyprus, where Venus was born from the sea.2 Saturn is lead, the heaviest of metals for the slowest of the planets. Jupiter gets tin because that’s what’s left over, and the planet Mercury, the fastest-moving planet associated with the god with winged feet, gets the slippery-slidy metal Mercury.

With one exception, we no longer use these associations. But alchemical texts might speak of combining Jupiter and Mars when they mean tin and iron. The only one of the metals that still retains its planetary name in common use is Mercury. There is, however, also a name that refers to the metal only—quicksilver. “Quick” here means “living,” rather than “speedy”; think of cutting your nails to the quick. So “quicksilver” is “living silver.” The Greek name for the metal is “hydroargyrum,” or “liquid silver.” This is the source of the modern chemical abbreviation for mercury (or quicksilver)—Hg.

So what does all this have to do with Harry Potter? Well, which character has a name that’s a form of the god/planet/metal we’ve been talking about? That’s right, Hermione (a feminine form of Hermes). And what’s her last name? Granger. So what does that make her initials? HG. And what do her parents do? They’re dentists. What do dentists traditionally make fillings out of? Mercury. Coincidence? I think not.

For further reading:

Lawrence M. Principe. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Renaissance Gettysburg

One gorgeous summer afternoon a few years ago, while in Gettysburg, PA for a chamber music camp, I used our afternoon break from playing string quartets to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park and take some photos. I stopped the car at the most prominent monument I could see, which turned out to be the Pennsylvania Monument.

As I was walking around it looking for good photographic angles, I noticed how the summer sky was framed by the monument’s arch. “That’s beautiful,” I thought. “It looks just like a painting.” Then I realized, “Hold on—it looks like THE painting.” A quick search on my phone confirmed my suspicion. The Pennsylvania Monument is indeed very similar to the architectural setting of Raphael’s 1509 fresco The School of Athens, right down to the sky framed by the arch. (The other tourists visiting the Battlefield that day probably wondered why I was jumping up and down in excitement).

So, was The School of Athens the inspiration for the design of the Pennsylvania Monument? The monument was commissioned in 1907 by the Pennsylvania state legislature; architect W. Liance Cottrell was awarded the job. (Sculptor Samuel Murray, who studied with Thomas Eakins, got the sculpture commission.) The monument was still incomplete when dedicated in 1910; more money was appropriated and the finished memorial was rededicated on July 1, 1913, as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I have so far been unable to find any evidence that Cottrell had Raphael’s fresco specifically in mind when he designed the memorial to Pennsylvanians who fought at Gettysburg. Cottrell was trained in the Beaux-Arts school of architecture, which made extensive use of classical style. Raphael and Cottrell may simply have chosen the same classical elements for their creations. But I like to imagine that Cottrell tried to bring Raphael’s imaginary building to life on the field of Gettysburg.

Paderewski, Parlor Music, Piano Professors, and Progress: The Piano at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Part 4

Progress and Piano Professors

While white women were pushed to the margins of the Fair, the contributions of African-Americans to the story of American progress were not simply marginalized; they were erased. Not for nothing was the Fair nicknamed the “White City.” Only European-derived culture and achievements could be displayed in those gleaming neo-classical buildings. Visitors to the Fair could see Africans themselves displayed on the Midway in Dahomey Village, one of the living ethnological villages whose purpose was to set the utopian vision of progress in the adjacent White City into sharper relief.1 But no African-Americans were on the Fair’s planning commissions; no building was dedicated to the progress they had made since the abolition of slavery. There was a “Colored American Day,” analogous to other special “Days” at the Fair arranged to boost attendance. Antonin Dvořák, who was summering that year in Spillville, Iowa, conducted his Eighth Symphony and other works on Bohemian Day, for example. African-American musicians Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook (both of whom studied with Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York) joined poet Paul Laurence Dunbar for a program on Colored American Day at which Frederick Douglass also spoke. Otherwise, African-American participation was unofficial and undocumented.

It is generally believed, based on oral traditions, that several “Piano Professors,” as they were called, playing music that would soon be known as “ragtime,” performed either on the Midway or at various establishments in the neighborhood of the Fair. Despite a lack of written documentation, scholars concur that Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime Writers,” was probably one of these Piano Professors. Ragtime has been called the first indigenous American musical style. Joplin established the ragtime form in his “Maple Leaf Rag” of 1899, which also became his biggest hit. Joplin composed over forty other rags after “Maple Leaf,” including the “Cascades” Rag inspired by the 1904 St Louis Fair commemorating the Louisiana Purchase, which he definitely did attend.2

Scott Joplin

The World’s Columbian Exposition closed over 125 years ago, on October 31, 1893. Little of the physical Fair remains today. The buildings of the White City, which were never intended to be permanent, are all gone, except for the Fine Arts building, now the Museum of Science and Industry. Besides its name, the Midway survives only as a wide grassy strip on the University of Chicago campus. The legacy of the Fair remains, however, in perhaps unexpected places. If you’ve ever ridden on a Ferris Wheel or enjoyed the midway at a county fair; drunk Welch’s grape juice or eaten Cracker Jack (both introduced at the Fair); recited the Pledge of Allegiance (written for the Fair’s Dedication Day ceremonies) or sung the fourth verse of “America the Beautiful” (with its reference to “alabaster cities”), you can thank the Chicago World’s Fair.

The Fair also left a musical legacy. Concert-goers who attend classical performances still mostly hear the music of dead European males, although, after being mostly forgotten after her death in 1944, Amy Beach has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Similarly, ragtime faded in popularity in the early twentieth century (although not before it influenced jazz), but experienced a revival in the 1970s, especially after the 1972 movie The Sting used Joplin tunes in its soundtrack. (For a time, it seemed that every piano student in the land was playing an arrangement of “The Entertainer.”) The issues raised by the experience of music at the Chicago World’s Fair—what to play, who should play it, how do you get an audience to come hear it, and how do you pay for it—are familiar to every classical music organization today.

For Further Reading:

Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1994.

Paderewski, Parlor Music, Piano Professors, and Progress: The Piano at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Part 3

Progress and Parlor Music

Both Thomas’ program of concerts and the Fair as a whole were designed to display progress. But progress is by its nature a comparative concept. The idea of progress as it arose in the Enlightenment implies that a society has journeyed from a worse state to a better one. So demonstrating progress requires showing its opposite— knowledge to compare with ignorance, reason with superstition, civilization with barbarism. This ideology of progress was mapped onto the geography of the Fair. Although Bertha Honoré Palmer, President of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, had negotiated a Women’s Building to celebrate female accomplishment, and engaged a woman architect, Sophia Hayden, to design it, the Women’s Building was not deemed worthy of a prime location on the Court of Honor.1 Rather, it was pushed, literally, to the margin of the Fair, on the extreme edge of the main Fair grounds adjacent to the Midway.  In the Fair’s hierarchy, white women occupied a borderline space, on the threshold between the civilization of the White City and the barbarism of the Midway.

Women’s music was marginalized as well. Like Chadwick and Paine, composer Amy Beach is also considered a member of the Second New England School. Like Chadwick and Paine, she was commissioned to write a work for Dedication Day in October 1892. Unlike Chadwick and Paine, however, Beach was not to hear her piece performed at that ceremony.  After much back-and-forth between male Fair officials and Bertha Palmer, Beach’s composition, the “Festival Jubilate” for chorus and orchestra, a setting of Psalm 100, “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands” (Opus 17), was instead performed at the dedication of the Women’s Building on May 1, 1893. The lack of music by women composers at Paderewski’s concert was typical of the programming of the rest of the Music Hall concerts (and, of course, typical of much classical music programming even today).2

Although Beach had already written one large-scale work, a Mass in E-flat (Opus 5, 1890), which could have been performed at one of the Choral Hall concerts, she was not given a place in any of the concerts planned by Thomas. She did return to the Fair on July 5-7 for the Women’s Musical Congress. The Fair’s organizers sponsored numerous International Congresses that ran concurrently with the Fair, meeting in downtown Chicago’s newly-constructed Art Institute. The Congresses assessed the state of the topic, discussed controversial issues, and debated what progress had been made and what remained to be done.3

Beach performed her own compositions on each of the Congress’ three days. The pieces she chose for these performances were not the large-scale works like symphonies and concertos that were featured in the Music Hall series. Rather, Beach highlighted smaller-scale genres whose very names— parlor songs, salon pieces, chamber works—emphasize the domestic setting that women musicians were associated with. On July 5, she played two piano pieces, “In Autumn” and “Fireflies,” from her Opus 15, Sketches, published the previous year. The following day she premiered her Romance for violin and piano, Opus 23, with Maud Powell, the first American violin virtuoso, as the soloist. The final day of the Congress, she accompanied vocalist Jeannette Dutton on Beach’s song “Sweetheart, Sigh no More,” whose melody she had adapted for the Romance. Although much of Beach’s oeuvre falls into these domestic genres, she did not confine her creative output to the parlor. In the years following the Fair, she composed her Gaelic Symphony in E minor, opus 32 (1897) and her Piano Concerto in C# minor, opus 45 (1900), both premiered by the Boston Symphony (the Concerto with Beach as the soloist).

Amy Beach

Next: Progress and Piano Professors

For Further Reading:

Block, Adrienne Fried. Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.

Feldman, Ann E. “Being Heard: Women Composers and Patrons at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.” Notes, 2nd series, 47, no. 1 (Sept. 1990), 7-20.

Paderewski, Parlor Music, Piano Professors, and Progress: The Piano at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Part 2

Paderewski Concert: The Event

Let’s return to the Paderewski story.  Theodore Thomas, a prominent conductor in late-nineteenth-century America, had recently become the conductor of what would later be known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the Exposition Orchestra was in fact mostly made up of Chicago Symphony musicians. Thomas was also the Director of the Music Bureau of the Fair, and he had planned an ambitious series of concerts for the Fair’s six-month run. The Paderewski concert was the first of what was intended to be a series of orchestral concerts in the Music Hall; additional concerts were planned for the Choral Hall, the Fair’s other indoor music venue, as well as outdoor band concerts.

Paderewski Concert: The Program

The program for Paderewski’s concert was all well-known works by European composers, all (except for Paderewski himself) dead and all (except for the Poles Paderewski and Chopin) German. The program choices fit in with one of Thomas’ stated aims, to educate the American public and elevate their musical taste: “to bring before the people of the United States a full illustration of music in its highest forms, as exemplified by the most enlightened nations of the world.” To Thomas, the “highest form” of music was symphonic; the “most enlightened nation” was Germany. This aim perhaps conflicted with Thomas’ other goal, “to make a complete showing to the world of musical progress in this country.”1 Thomas had commissioned two works by American composers for the Fair’s Dedication Day in October 1892, the “Columbian Ode” by George Whitefield Chadwick and “Columbus March and Hymn” by John Knowles Paine, two leading American composers of the day and members of what is now known as the Second New England School.2 But when it came time to inaugurate his concert series, he chose a European musician performing European repertoire.

Paderewski Concert: The Instrument

Paderewski played the concert on a Steinway piano. He was what we would now call a “Steinway Artist”—Steinway and Sons supplied the instrument for his entire U.S. tour.3 Many pianos were on display in the immense Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building on the Fair’s Court of Honor. Piano-makers like Chickering, Kimball, Everett, and many others now forgotten showcased their latest models. Makers of accessories like piano stools and component parts like piano wire were also present. Some displays were quite creative: Alfred Dolge and Son, maker of hammers, dampers, and, as the official report on the display of musical instruments put it, all the “woolly parts” of instruments, adorned his display with lampposts in the shape of giant piano hammers.4

The Alfred Dolge company’s exhibit in the Manufactures Building. Note the Lampposts in the shape of piano hammers.

It is not surprising that pianos should be featured so prominently at the Fair. 1893 was in the midst of the Golden Age of the piano—it was standard equipment in every middle-class home, and a standard part of the education of every middle-class young girl, one of the “accomplishments,” along with drawing and needlework, that would show she was a lady. Many of the piano companies exhibiting at the Fair employed such accomplished young ladies, referred to as “pianistes,” to demonstrate their products.

Furthermore, the piano conformed to the Fair’s ideology of progress. The design and manufacture of pianos underwent significant improvements in the course of the nineteenth century.  In 1895, Charles Daniell asserted that if Bartolomeo Cristofori, the 18th-century inventor of the modern piano, had “visited the World’s Columbian Exposition he would have been amazed at what he saw.” Daniell explained that “the evolution of the piano has been very great, from the tinkling little clavichord of the early eighteenth century to the perfect instrument of today.” He concluded that the exhibitors at Chicago “proved their spirit of progressiveness as never before.”5 It is fitting, therefore, that the first Music Hall concert should feature the piano.

The piano exhibitors, however, did not find it fitting at all. They had nothing against Paderewski himself or the choice of repertoire; it was his Steinway piano they objected to. Steinway and Sons, as well as some other eastern piano companies, had chosen not to exhibit at the Fair because they objected to the procedure to be used for awarding prizes. When the exhibitors heard that Paderewski planned to play his accustomed Steinway, they protested, demanding that he use a piano from one of the exhibiting companies. He refused, and what we would now call a flame war ensued in the Chicago and New York papers. Supported by Theodore Thomas, Paderewski prevailed, but it was not an auspicious beginning to Thomas’s concert series.

The inauspicious beginning didn’t get much better. After Paderewski’s opening concerts, which probably benefited from the soloist’s celebrity status (not to mention the publicity generated by the piano controversy), the remainder of Thomas’ carefully-planned Music Hall concerts played to near-empty houses. Maybe it was the one-dollar admission fee—twice the cost of admission to the Fair itself—that kept the crowds away. The Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression that began that summer, probably also contributed. Maybe it was Thomas’ insistence on programming “serious” music with no concession to popular taste, since the more pops-oriented concerts, which were free, packed them in. In fact, the most popular musical performances were the open-air band concerts.  By August 12, Thomas’ accumulated problems led to his loss of support by the Fair’s organizers, and he resigned.

Next: Progress and Parlor Music

For Further Reading:

Abbott, Frank D., and Charles A. Daniell. Musical Instruments at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Chicago: The Presto Company, 1895.  

Guion, David M. “From Yankee Doodle Thro’ to Handel’s Largo: Music at the World’s Columbian Exposition.” College Music Symposium 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1984), 81-96. 

Hume, Paul, and Ruth Hume. “The Great Chicago Piano War.” American Heritage 21, issue 6 (1970), 16-21.

Mazzola, Sandy R. “Bands and Orchestras at the World’s Columbian Exposition.”    American Music, vol. 4, no. 4 (Winter 1986), 407-24.

McKinley, Ann. “Music for the Dedication Ceremonies of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1892.” American Music, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1985), 42-51.

Miller, Kiri. “Americanism Musically: Nation, Evolution, and Public Education at the Columbian Exposition, 1893.” 19th-Century Music 27, no. 2 (Fall 2003), 137-55.

Taylor, David A. “Paderewski’s Piano.” Smithsonian March 1999.

Paderewski, Parlor Music, Piano Professors, and Progress: The Piano at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Part 1

On May 2, 1893, Polish piano virtuoso Ignaz Paderewski performed at the inaugural concert of the Music Hall on the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). The program opened with the 114-member Exposition Orchestra, conducted by Theodore Thomas, playing Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” overture, followed by Paderewski performing as the soloist in his own piano concerto, playing his preferred Steinway instrument. This was followed by a selection of solo piano works by Chopin and Schumann. The orchestra returned to conclude the concert with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger.

This apparently unremarkable story of a performance actually encapsulates the story of music, particularly piano music, at the Chicago World’s Fair. Every aspect of the performance—the event itself, the program, and the instrument—can serve as a window into the context of the Fair’s musical activities. At the same time, this seemingly routine account masks tensions regarding American identity, between highbrow and lowbrow forms of entertainment, and over the status of women and African-Americans that disturbed not only the Fair but also Gilded Age American society as a whole.

The Chicago World’s Fair

The Fair commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was located in Jackson Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, seven miles south of the Loop, where landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and supervising architect Daniel Hudson Burnham created what became known as the “White City.” The individual fair buildings, although designed by different architects, adhered to a common Neo-Classical style, known as “Beaux-Arts” from the school in Paris where many architects trained, and were all painted white.  The main exhibition buildings, such as Machinery Hall, the Agriculture Building, and the gigantic Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, were arranged around a basin carved by Olmsted out of the marshy lakeshore and called the “Court of Honor.” Perpendicular to the fairgrounds proper ran the “Midway Plaisance,” a wide boulevard about a mile long.  Here were gathered not only food concessions, rides, and other entertainment options—giving its name to the “midway” of every subsequent state and county fair with their carnival rides and cotton-candy stands—but also living ethnological exhibits and the Fair’s signature attraction, the great Wheel designed by George Washington Gale Ferris and intended to surpass the iron tower constructed by Gustave Eiffel for the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was dedicated on October 21, 1892.  Hold on, you say, isn’t Columbus Day October 12? Yes it is, but New York City had scheduled its Columbus commemoration for that day and Chicago didn’t want to compete either for attention or for dignitaries—they were hoping U.S. President Benjamin Harrison would attend. So they creatively reasoned that if the Gregorian calendar had been in use in 1492, the day Columbus sighted land would have been October 21, not October 12, which makes October 21 the “real” Columbus Day. As it turned out, Benjamin Harrison couldn’t come, as his wife was dying, but he sent Vice President Levi Morton in his place. Morton expressed the overall purpose of the Fair when he dedicated it “to the world’s progress in arts, in science, in agriculture, and in manufacture.”1 The new President, Grover Cleveland, did attend the Opening Day of the Fair on May 1, 1893. The building of the Fair continued through the winter of 1892-93, and it opened to the public on May 1, 1893, closing six months later on October 31.

Next: The Paderewski Concert

For Further Reading:

Badger, R. Reid. The Great American Fair: The World’s Columbian Exposition and American Culture.

Harris, Neil, Wim de Wit, James Gilbert, and Robert W. Rydell. Grand Illusions: Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1993.

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988.

Mucigrosso, Robert. Celebrating the New World: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Chicago: Ivan R.  Dee, 1993.

Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984.

Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Teaching with Produce, Episode 1

I use a lot of images in my classes, especially art and architecture from the time periods we’re studying. It can be challenging, when studying architecture, to visualize a 3-dimensional structure when all you’re looking at is a 2-dimensional photograph. One way of meeting this challenge is by learning to read different kinds of 2-dimensional representations, like ground plans and elevations. Another way is to use 3-dimensional models. And sometimes you can make your model out of produce.

When I teach Renaissance art in a core course on modern Europe, I choose three examples, one each of painting, sculpture, and architecture—all from Florence, all from about 1430, and all one of the first of their kind. So we take a look at Donatello’s David, the first free-standing bronze nude since antiquity;Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, one of the first uses of vanishing point perspective; and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi chapel, an early example of a domed building modeled on the Pantheon.

Unlike the Pantheon, however, where the dome sits atop a round drum, Brunelleschi’s dome sits on a square base. The transition is achieved by means of pendentives, the curvy triangles on either side of the semicircles. This is extremely hard to visualize from a photo alone—so I bring out the grapefruit. I owe this demo to my college art history professor at Santa Clara University, Dr. Brigid Barton (one of my pedagogical role models).

Take one grapefruit, the largest and roundest you can find, and slice it in half. You now have two hemispherical domes; set one aside. Then, with the cut side down, make four vertical cuts in the shape of a square. And voila! You now have a square base transitioning to a round dome, by means of pendentives. Thanks, Dr. Barton!

Proud to be a Dilettante

What the heck is a scholarly dilettante? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Not really. Allow me to explain.

I’ve been playing the violin since I was seven. When I was 15, I switched to a new teacher, Mr Gordon. I overheard my mother talking on the phone making the arrangements with him. He must have asked, “Is she a serious musician?” because my mother’s answer was, “No, she’s a dilettante.” My first reaction was indignation—“who’s she calling a dilettante?” But immediately I realized that she was in fact correct—I was a dilettante. I didn’t intend to make music my career; I wasn’t planning to be a music major in college; I didn’t practice for hours every day; I just did it for fun. Definitely a dilettante. I guess Mr Gordon didn’t care; I studied with him for several years; I continue to play the violin and viola to this day.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the exchange I overheard between my mother and Mr Gordon, and I’ve come to realize not just that I am a dilettante, but that I should not be ashamed of it. In fact, I should be proud of it. Because the original meaning of the word “dilettante” isn’t someone who’s unserious or untalented or superficial or a dabbler. “Dilettante” comes from the Italian verb dilettare, which means “to take delight in.” That attitude describes not just the way I approach my violin playing but also many other activities, including my professional life.

It may sound strange to hear a professional historian describe herself as a dilettante, especially since a related word, “amateur,” is often taken as the opposite of professional. But just as the etymology of “dilettante” is “delight,” the etymology of “amateur,” from French this time, is “lover”—an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. So while I’m definitely a professional historian—I have a PhD; I am a tenured full professor at a university, which pays me; I give papers at academic conferences and publish articles in peer-reviewed journals;—I love what I do and take delight in it. (Well, maybe except for grading. And meetings.)

Furthermore, being a dilettante doesn’t only mean you can take delight in what you do for a living, your profession. It also means you can take seriously what you do for fun, as an amateur. I’m an amateur musician, but I took a year of music theory at our local community college. Every summer for about the last ten years I’ve attended a weeklong workshop on violin technique. Several years ago I began taking piano lessons, also at the community college. I take them for college credit, partly because it’s slightly cheaper than the non-credit option but mostly because it is more demanding. As a requirement for the course I have to attend performance classes where the other college students and I play for each other and get feedback from a faculty member; I’m also required to play before a jury of faculty every semester. I don’t need the credits; I don’t care about the grade (although I do have a 4.0). I do it this way because it’s a greater opportunity for learning.

I plan to use this blog to explore in a scholarly way the things I take delight in. That will include historical topics, of course, especially from the eras I teach (ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages primarily, but also modern Europe), as well as musical ones and any others that take my fancy. I would be delighted for you to join me in these explorations.

Playing 2nd violin in my mother’s orchestra, age 8.
Playing with my mother, age 21.
Taking delight in a violin lesson, summer 2019.