Universiteit Leiden

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When in Leiden

In this new column, colleagues share stories and experiences about working and living abroad. The first story is written by Marie-Agnes Dittrich, guest lecturer at the Institute for History. She is a musicologist at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Below, she tells about her experience of teaching and living here for four months.

The Visiting Professorship of the Foundation for Austrian Studies is much coveted: Working in another country with students from a different field is a welcome challenge, and to do so at a famous old university in a town renowned for its beauty makes it a very special joy.

After having been lucky enough to teach here already five years ago, I always felt some nostalgia when thinking about Leiden and my hosts who had welcomed me and my numerous visitors for four months - so much that I once even made a rather extended detour from Berlin to Vienna, just to walk along Rapenburg and have coffee at Zoeterwoudsesingel. Imagine my joy when my university permitted me to accept an invitation to return here.

I am a musicologist. Musicologists make music much in the way that Egyptologists embalm cats and build pyramids. I have played the piano, flute and harpsichord, but professionally I teach music analysis, the study of musical forms, structures and techniques, at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna to students of conducting, composition or music theory. This is a fancy way of saying that I get payed to listen to and talk about my favourite music with highly motivated young people from Argentina to North Korea (seriously – some years ago they needed a bunch of conductors). We discuss which musical styles were available for a composer and how they function within a movement but also reflect mentalities or social conditions (think of the class struggle expressed in the conflicting dance rhythms in Mozart’s Don Giovanni). But since the perception of music has varied remarkably through the ages, we also think about what a composer’s contemporaries might have heard in his or her music – the disgusting lack of style in Mozart, for example, or the anarchy in Schubert’s harmonies. We need to question how an image of a composer was constructed, such as Beethoven’s, whose heroic masculinity was (according to Richard Wagner) deeply rooted in German Protestantism, and when and why: Wagner’s booklet is from 1870, when Beethoven’s centenary coincided with the war against France. Or how a theory about Bach’s polyphony based on a particular reading of Schopenhauer encouraged atonality. And how interpretations born in long forgotten contexts remain alive in performance or teaching traditions.

Thus, while its object is music, the methods of (historical) musicology are those of the humanities, closely related to art history or literature, and it has much to offer to historians interested in the study of mentalities, of memory, or networks, or invention of traditions, to name but a few. Here in Leiden I teach a BA-lecture on “Classical” Music and Society from the 17th through the 20st century to a lot of attentive and smiling faces; and in a BA-seminar about Music and Politics (1848-2018) we have read, for example, about Stalin’s and Hitler’s attitude towards music, or in a recent discussion linked traumata after WW I and their influence on the musical avant-garde to Stockhausen’s barbaric interpretation of 9/11 as one of the greatest work of art ever. I have seen students outside of Lipsius, continuing a debate, because some colleague kicked us out of the room after just two short hours.

Vienna has an excellent public transport system and fine bike trails along the Ring or the Danube. But water-wise Vienna’s inner city is underprivileged and, for all its splendor, its mayor should have a very good look at cities in the Netherlands where cars are not the dominant life form. People here in Leiden can sit in front of their houses next to flower pots big enough to block the sidewalks, because one can walk around them without fear of road rage. Maybe it is the human scale of the buildings or the intimate small streets, or maybe because many drivers pretend that they too would rather bike if only they did not have to transport a sofa today: I enjoy this city. And I am grateful to its university and to the Austrian Foundation, especially to Monika Baár, Tineke and Pieter Bloembergen, Patrick Dassen, Jeroen Duindam, Steven Engelsman, and Adelheid and Hugo Weiland for their hospitality, generosity, advice, for visits to the opera in Amsterdam or plans for future collaboration.

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