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The Path of a Musicologist (Interview Part 1)

Last week, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Nathaniel Lew, a musicologist teaching music education, history, and humanities at St. Michael's college. Professor Lew’s background is remarkably impressive, to say the least. In high school, Professor Lew was accepted into a highly selective music program at Juilliard, taking music classes and Oboe lessons every Saturday. Instead of continuing on to apply to Juilliard and become an Oboist, Professor Lew applied and was accepted into Yale University. At Yale, Professor Lew majored in music but also was intent on pursuing a full liberal arts education. To further his music education specifically, Professor Lew pursued and received his second Bachelor's degree in music at Cambridge University in England. Professor Lew, after finding his true passion in musicology, pursued and received his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.

Portions of my interview with Professor Lew are presented below.

I understand your scholarship focuses primarily on 20th-century British music?

Yes, my primary focus has been WWII wartime and postwar classical English music. For a long while I was researching and writing a book which is about a large classical music festival that was held in 1951 in London called the Festival of Britain. It was like a world’s fair but this one was only for British citizens. Millions of citizens came to London to attend it. This was six years after the war ended and the economy of England was still suffering. As part of this Festival of Britain was a music festival that was the largest festival of English classical music ever mounted in the history of Great Britain, yet weirdly before I wrote my book no one had noticed this event! So I started researching and taking trip after trip to archives around Great Britain to find the original source material for my book, which was published five years ago.

Along the way, I have also done a great deal of research regarding Rafe Vaughan Williams, who is one of the most important English twentieth-century composers. I am one of the team of musicologists who edit Vaughan Williams’ manuscripts. There is a foundation that manages his legacy and this foundation hired me and other musicologists to go through his archives and pull out pieces that had never been published. We edit these unpublished hand-written pieces and then they get published. I have done four of these pieces. It is incredibly fun! I am one of the few people that can read his handwriting! These scores are written in pencil and are over eighty years old, so they are very hard to read.

Did you see yourself becoming a scholar of twentieth-century British music when you were in high school?

Not at all! I love classical music; I’m a classical music nerd and have been since I was seven years old. Also, I love performing. My gradual move toward archival work happened in graduate school. I thought I was going to do a more interpretative dissertation and then I found the exciting historical material that grabbed my interest. It became its own exciting pursuit, and I found a great deal of British music that hadn’t been played since the festival in 1951!

Was there a specific point in time when you decided your career was going to focus on musicology rather than being a performer?

When I was leaving high school I wasn’t exactly clear on what types of musical careers were out there. But I knew I wanted to go to a university and get a broad liberal arts education, and I wasn't that interested in practicing the oboe three hours a day. By the time I was a senior in college, I was starting to realize that I excelled in music history and so musicology became more of a focus. Then, when I went to Cambridge it became clear that I was the musicologist in our class! That was my found passion.

However, what I wasn’t thinking about coming out of Yale was a career in music education. Some of the finest, most well-trained musicians that I know are high school, middle school, and elementary school, teachers. Back in the 1980s when I was coming out of high school and college I wasn’t considering a path in music education but it can be a fantastic career path for musicians.

Professor Lew’s research on British classical music helped unearth a niche area in musicology that had never been studied before. However, Professor Lew doesn’t just research British classical music; he has also recently started teaching a new course that I found very interesting. To learn more about Professor Lew’s new course, Cultures and Controversies in Contemporary Broadway Musicals, please view the second part of the article.

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