Music, Death, and the Seeds of Research: a conversational and collaborative approach

Matthew McCullough

When someone mentions the humble PhD student the imagination often conjures a caricature of a bespectacled twenty-something year old buried in a book and chained to a desk. Research is often presented as isolated, but over the first half of my PhD at Durham I have found the opposite to be true; as we stand on the shoulders of those before us and proffer what we can, conversational and collaborative approaches to research foster exciting new interdisciplinary directions for me.

I am currently in the second year of a musicology and analysis PhD exploring British composers’ responses to the First World War, how they dealt with death and grief in music, and the ways in which they helped shape our cultural memory of the war. I am supervised by Jeremy Dibble, Professor of Music at Durham and a leading expert on British music whose recent work has involved reviving forgotten music by the British composer, Charles Villiers Stanford. Jeremy has produced editions of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix and At The Abbey Gate in order to bring them back to life (you can read more about Jeremy’s work here). This was of huge benefit to my own PhD as I was able to explore these works after 100 years of silence. Upon further research, I noticed that At The Abbey Gate, which commemorates the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, was only ever performed once in Britain and that the reception of the work was largely negative. A section of my PhD now explores why this work was unpopular, and how its representations of death differ from that of other ‘war music’ at the time – all this has been made possible by Professor Dibble’s research.

The unknown warrior at Westminister Abbey Nov 1920

I also found it fascinating that some of this music had never been heard before: In further conversation, I learned that one of Stanford’s pupils, Alan Gray, had lost two of his three sons to the war. I ventured to Cambridge where Gray had been an organist and Fellow at Trinity College to examine some archives. Here I discovered, amongst other works, a Requiem Mass written in 1918 and dedicated to Gray’s two sons Maurice and Edward Jasper. This work, to the best of my knowledge, has never been performed and so, taking leave from Jeremy’s research, I have begun to piece together an edition of the Requiem from the manuscripts in the hope that it, too, may soon receive its first performance over a decade after its composition.

Another important aspect of my research is understanding the role that death plays in catalysing artistic creativity. Here, I was captivated by the work of Douglas Davies, a leading expert in death and Professor in the Study of Religion at Durham. When I began my PhD I was struck by Douglas’ idea that humans use language framed by funerary rights to oppose death’s challenge to our self-consciousness. I began to wonder how we might substitute these ‘words’ for ‘music’ and got in touch with Professor Davies to discuss my thoughts. Over the coming months, I was lucky enough to join The Centre for Death and Life Studies for whom I organised two symposia on themes of Music, Death, and Memory. My thoughts on ‘music against death’ are still evolving, but the opportunity to discuss, share and broaden them through conversation with other researchers at the centre – both from Durham and further afield – and also with Professor Davies, who originally formulated these ideas, has been invaluable to my own research.

And so, the vision of the lonely isolated PhD student is only sometimes accurate – of course, it is important for us to spend time at our desk reading and writing, but the most vibrant fruits of our research come from sharing ideas with friends and colleagues in order to challenge, reaffirm, and mature our thoughts. I’ve found ground at Durham which is refreshingly fertile for this style of research; one where students and early career researchers benefit from discussions with senior academics and grow, advance, and remould ideas to create something exciting and impactful. These seeds are dispersed widely and sown deep; the research environment in Durham is unique in its conversational approach to ideational cross-pollination and my own research on music, death, and memory will continue to develop as a cumulative product of these conversations and collaborations.

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About studying music at postgraduate level here

Matthew McCullough

Matthew is a second year PhD student in Musicology researching British composers' responses to World War One and the ways in which their work helped shape a cultural memory of the war. He is particularly interested in music's relationship with death, grief, trauma, and remembrance. Matthew's research is funded by a Van Mildert College Trust PhD Scholarship and he currently holds a DCAD Fellowship.

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