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Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part III

oxford-ticket-13-feb-2009I got some news on Friday that I’m thrilled to have received, to say the very least. It’s one part of a triple threat, a trifecta even, of excellent possibilities, and it is seeming rather possible right now that by this time next week, I will have found out that the other two, and thus all three, have occurred.

My only gripe is that I was hoping that I might have heard this before we went to England, so that celebrating these bits of news might be yet another pretense for the trip.

That’s okay; it just means we’ll have to go again.

But you were waiting to hear something about Oxford. Warning: this is perhaps going to be the most academically dense installment of this account. Apologies.

A couple of weeks before we left, I e-mailed my friend and Anglophile Mark Powell to see if he had any suggestions for things to do and see. E-mail Alexander Lingas, he said. He’s there.

Dr. Lingas let me know that, Friday evening, he would be delivering a lecture at Oxford’s Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies on Byzantine chant in Late Byzantium, and that we would certainly be welcome to come if we wanted.

I was of two minds about this, truthfully. I thought to myself, wow, what a neat opportunity to sample, even on a small scale, the academic life while we’re there, on a topic which is near and dear to our hearts, and discussed by somebody whose work we respect and have been influenced by, even.

On the other hand, that’s the same day on which we will have just concluded roughly seventeen hours of travel, and it will most certainly mean that we’ll be taking two trips to Oxford, since I was really hoping to show Megan around there (and convince her that it’s someplace we want to live and do postdoctoral work someday, but never mind that now).

Oh well. Guess we’re going.

Thus, after refreshing ourselves with showers and fresh clothes, we took the Tube to Paddington Station from Charing Cross (this is a lot easier than it initially looks on the Tube map, by the way; you just push the waste all the way in so that the door can close… uh, wait — what I meant to say was, just take the Bakerloo line north from Charing Cross to Paddington — it looks like this shouldn’t work on the map, at least at first glance, but it in fact does), and off we went. An hour later we were getting off at Oxford station.

I took us right to the Ioannou Centre (alas, the Cock and Camel, where I had a nice breakfast a year and a half ago, has been replaced by an Italian restaurant); it’s a rather new building, and I remember walking past it a year and a half ago thinking, “Hey, I need to figure out a way to visit this place next time I’m here.” (This is not the accomplishment of memory it sounds like; you go down the main drag from the train station till you get to the other main drag which is perpendicular to the one you’re on, go left, and after a block or two there it is on your left.)

We got to the hall a half hour early or so, which gave us an excellent opportunity to look like American tourists who obviously didn’t belong there, awkwardly standing outside a darkened lecture hall doing nothing while students and faculty were quite well-occupied around us. Still, people showed up soon enough to provide us fish out of water with a little bit of a pond.

The lecture, “Cathedral and Monastic Psalmody in Late Byzantium: Towards a Final Synthesis?”, was intended as an introduction to the issues surrounding the late medieval Byzantine repertoire for scholars who are in fact Byzantinists but not music specialists. Since I’ve read his dissertation, many of the broad strokes of what he discussed were not new to me, but it was very interesting to hear him sing off of the medieval manuscripts, as well as talk about some of the transmission issues with the medieval repertoire. What was great about hearing somebody like him talk about these things is that he was able to make clear that this is a part of a greater body of living tradition and practice; this is not just What Those People Back Then Used To Do.

A point which I very much appreciated: Dr. Lingas said that chant scholars such as Egon Wellesz have tended to discuss the Paleologean repertoire in the context of a narrative of overall cultural and political decline in Constantinople; of course, I’m reading The Fall of Constantinople: 1453 right now, and Runciman very pointedly observes (perhaps with people like Wellesz in mind) that culturally, Byzantium was quite alive and well even as the Empire was in its death throes. Anyway, as this particular narrative of decline has gone away, it’s been replaced by a narrative of specifically religious decline, bizarrely (at least to me) represented by a disappearance of congregational singing and the rise of professional-level, melismatic chant. “The end result is the same [in both narratives,]” Dr. Lingas said. “The cantor has hijacked the liturgy.” He took great pains to disabuse the audience of these notions, demonstrating that a great deal of continuity (but not stasis, he stressed) can be seen between the Paleologean material and the received tradition of the present day, and that by no means has the cantor hijacked anything. Since I have been the cantor getting accused of doing the hijacking, the defense to a general audience was most appreciated.

Following the lecture, we hung out for a bit at a reception for Dr. Lingas, talked with him briefly, had a lovely chat with a DPhil student there who is writing his dissertation on Galen (“I guess I specialize in pain,” he said), and then we needed some real food. We told Dr. Lingas we would see him at church on Sunday (“Great — it’s the day for Byzantine chant in English,” he said), and then hunted down a meal.

We found ourselves at an Irish pub chain restaurant called O’Neill’s; chain it may have been, but it was tasty and reasonably inexpensive, and a good place for a beer and some stew.

We were ready to head back — we’d be in Oxford again on Sunday, anyway. By this point, we had been up for close to thirty hours (give or take), and we were nodding off on the train back to London to say the least. Back in the hotel room, we were asleep before our heads even hit their respective pillows.

Travel tip: having an international flight arrive in the morning and then tiring yourself out so that go to bed at a normal hour is a great way to beat jet lag.

Next installment: When Your Definition of Modern Is Anything After 1400 or, How Emily Hindrichs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Her Wig

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