The Sound of Beauty: Darwin Lecture 2011

Dealing with the dangers of music in the Middle Ages.

On 11 February I gave a public lecture in Cambridge as part of Darwin College’s annual lecture series. This series always has a theme–this year, the theme was ‘Beauty’–and is aimed at the general public rather than forming part of any specifically academic course. When they asked me well over a year ago if I would take part, I was delighted to be asked and really excited by the prospect of addressing a crowd of several hundred: as a medievalist I generally talk to mere tens of people at conferences, and even the largest lectures I do (to the compulsory courses for the second and third year here at Oxford) only have a maximum of around 150 students in them.  I also enjoy talking to the general public–people who have chosen to come to a lecture not because they are required to or because it might help them get a better mark in their exams, but because they were genuinely intrigued by the topic.

The organizers at Darwin asked me to speak to the title of ‘The Sound of Beauty’ and I decided that I would focus on the history of the ethical valuations attached to beautiful sound at various points in the Middle Ages, and music’s place as a subset of such sound, whose ontology was to some extent historical contingent.  In short: beautiful sound can be dangerous, the pleasure it gives can be morally suspect. Societies have therefore tried to regulate and control music so as to ensure that beautiful sound avoids these dangers and is only good. Such controls have not always been successful and tell us rather a lot about the relationship between loving music and being human. The lecture draws on several of my published papers–especially my paper on sirens and the gendering of the semitone–and bits of my book Sung Birds, but puts the material together in a different kind of way. The lecture will eventually be published in paper form in the book of the whole lecture series, but the live lecture can be viewed by clicking on the screen cap (left). Over 400 people came to my Darwin talk.

In addition to giving the lecture itself, the organizers asked me to give a short interview on CUTV, which can be seen here.

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