Research Spotlight: Marc Vanscheeuwijck, Music History

Associate Professor of Music History Marc Vanscheeuwijck

May 1, 2014—Marc Vanscheeuwijck, associate professor of music history, explains how the UO's graduate degree in historical performance practice is unique in all of academia.

What are you currently working on?

My current work focuses on the various bass instruments of the violin family in the period between 1500 and 1800. Essentially, my work is meant to answer questions about the different types of instruments that musicians utilized back then; their use in the repertoire in each of the European regions; and their many playing techniques, types of strings and bows, etc.

Because these instruments were so fundamentally different in many ways from the one and only bass violin we have kept since 1800—the violoncello—if we are interested (as I am) in figuring out how they sounded and behaved in the repertoires of the early modern period, we need to explore all these questions through the study of documents, treatises, iconography (pictures), the music itself, organology (the instruments and bows themselves), the complete historical, cultural, and aesthetic context of each geographic area I am working on.

So far, I have worked on early cellos in the Venetian Republic, the Papal States, the Po Valley, Naples, Paris, and Thuringia and Saxony (Central Germany), but there are still many relevant regions to be explored in order to get a fuller and clearer picture.

What makes the UO's historical performance practice curriculum unique?

Although I am a cellist who focuses on pre-Romantic repertoires, techniques, and performance traditions, the information I rely upon only marginally comes from the musical text and the instrument(s) themselves, and much more from the entire cultural context that includes art history, aesthetics, literary history, oral traditions, building acoustics, theoretical writings, and much more.

What we do in the Historical Performance Practice degree at the UO is exactly that: studying the context in which this music "lives" so we can reconstruct whatever is missing in terms of performance indications in the scores of the time with a high degree of probability. We try to become "literate" about past musical traditions and practices in order to make them "sound" again.Vanscheeuwijck practices on his violoncello.

In that sense, our program at the UO is absolutely unique in the world, since in every other early music institution (in the US and in Europe!) the practice of the instruments (and voice) is central, and the context is more peripheral. At the UO we invert this, and we start from an understanding of a culture, of which we then apply the principles in playing. That is how I see both my research, and what we do in our unique program here.

Why do you focus on performance practice of the past?

A fascination with European architecture, music, art, and thinking from Greek-Roman Antiquity to the French Revolution is something I have had since my early teens, and understanding how it all "works," and works together in the complete human context is what drives me. Music is really just one part of that passion, but it may have been my frustration with music teachers who told me to do things in a certain way "because that’s how we do them," without ever giving me rational explanations, that triggered my insatiable hunger for understanding the past, particularly in music.

This is also the way I "practice" music history, in an attempt to understand why people composed the way they did, how they conceived of sound and expression, how their music "fit" in their social, religious, and cultural environment, and how this can be communicated today through sound. In order to explore all this, I spend a lot time visiting cities, buildings, museums, libraries, and archives everywhere in Europe.

How does the UO support your scholarship?

The UO's unique graduate program allows me to combine my own research with teaching music history and various historical performance practices from the Middle Ages through the 19th century in theory, first; and in practice, second. It is this type of approach that I have a need to communicate to my students, and there are only a handful of institutions in the world that actually allow me to do that.