Between the Lines: Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley


April 2015

Words by
Emer Nestor

Photos by
Frances Marshall

Distinguished academic Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley is a leading figure in Irish musicology, and a highly respected savant of international note. Her remarkable contribution to research in the areas of Schubert, Goethe and German Song, have garnered worldwide recognition.

Historically, Lorraine is the first woman in Ireland to be conferred with the DMus in Musicology for published work (NUI, 2012). She is also a recipient of a Gerda Henkel Foundation scholarship (2014), two DAAD Senior Academics Awards (2014 and 2010) and the Goethe Prize of the English Goethe Society (2001). Lorraine has recently been elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy—the highest honour a scholar can receive in Ireland for academic excellence. She is currently a senior lecturer in the music faculty of Maynooth University, where she combines a prolific writing career with a busy teaching schedule. Ahead of her admittance service to the RIA in May, Lorraine speaks to us frankly about her journey to date, while providing illuminating insight into what it means to be a musicologist in the twenty-first century.

An innate passion for music and education underpinned Lorraine’s early undergraduate studies. Her BA in Music and English, was swiftly followed with a H Dip Ed. The desire for pursuing further research on German song inspired a second BA in German, before a research Masters in Music and German beckoned. The thirst for knowledge continued, and Lorraine was upgraded to PhD status.

When asked about her attraction to the worlds of Schubert, Goethe and Lieder, Lorraine reveals:

I was introduced to Schubert Lieder in school. ‘Heidenröslein’ was on the curriculum and I remember a throw-away comment my teacher made before she played a recording of the Lied: “Ach girls, I wish it were ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade'”. The wistfulness in her voice made me root out a recording of Schubert’s first Goethe setting and it was there my love of Schubertian song was born.

In the second year of my German degree Dr Dan Farrelly introduced me to Goethe’s ‘Faust Part One’ and I was immediately gripped by the poet. Over coffee with Dan, I mentioned casually that I planned to pursue research in music and German, that I would love to write a dissertation on Schubert’s Goethe settings for example, expecting such a popular topic to have been done. When Dan told me it hadn’t—he had supervised a student who initially pursued the topic and gave up—I was so surprised, did a search on existing literature and sure enough a gap was there.

During these years of study Lorraine was Head of Music at Rathdown School, teaching by day and writing by night. Despite such a heavy, yet enjoyable, workload she found that “teaching provided an escape from the solitary nature of a scholar’s life“. Upon completion of her PhD Lorraine was awarded a two-year Government of Ireland postdoctoral fellowship at Trinity College Dublin. She then went on to take up a permanent lecturing appointment at Maynooth University. Since then she has carved an impressive reputation as a musicologist, traversing and indeed charming, the universities of the world with her findings. Lorraine provides us with an eloquent summary of her views on what ‘musicology’ means to her, and what it is to be a ‘musicologist’:

The subject [of musicology] is so huge, so complex, and so dear to me that I have decided to begin my approach to it by breaking the question into still smaller components in order to refocus the inquiry, and ask not only what the term ‘musicologist’ means to me, but why musicology matters, and what importance it has in our contemporary world?

In attempting to answer the first question, ‘Why does musicology matter to me?’, I must acknowledge how fortunate I have been in that I have loved every piece of music, every song I have written about, and find my work as a musicologist intriguing and endlessly challenging. It is also true to say that the poet and art form to which I devote my life hold little currency in a contemporary world. Most musicians in Ireland know Goethe only through his musical settings; few have read him in the original or in translation. And though many young singers develop a love of Lieder, most turn to opera as a means of making a living. So how can I justify spending my life writing about both and what does musicology mean to me?

Firstly it is not just musicology that matters, but certain pieces of music matter personally to us, and this is part of the adventure of encountering and writing about such works. Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, for example, raises some broad existential questions that to me seem basic and compelling: What is the human condition? And what is the nature of the world in which we find ourselves? Does it have a ‘meaning’ or purpose? And what does music tell us about our place in the world? In my view Schubert boldly raises these questions in a cycle that represents a kind of high-water mark in nineteenth century song. Even its title is, what literary critics would call, a totalizing image, in that so much is gathered into its orbit of meaning.

A second area which has recently preoccupied me is, of course, Schubert and the ‘Concept of Late Style’, and, by extension, how far the poetic content of music is influenced by biography. In his lecture, ‘The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words’, Wallace Stevens speaks about the confrontation between reality and the imagination that forms the basis of art. Most famously he defines poetry as ‘a violence from within that protects us from a violence without…It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality’. In a similar way Schubert’s late style could be read as a renaming of a kind. It was finding a language to transform the present reality from something intolerable into something with which the composer could live. It was a confrontation, a counter pressure, that provided access to another realm, a new reality and in the last analysis, had something to do with the composer’s self-preservation. As Schubert’s letters in 1823 and 1824 unveil, the pressure of reality was fierce, but its evasion through art not only cancelled the pressure but supplied a counter-pressure, pushing back against this external pressure, seeking an equilibrium.

And so in this sense, it could be argued that the pressure of reality was the determining factor in the artistic character of Schubert’s late style and this no doubt, is why the sound of it helps us to live our lives. Music helps us to order our thoughts, to make sense of our lives. It connects listeners to the history of musical language itself, to the history of human encounters with the violent realities that surround them, and to the history of human success in the struggle for spiritual survival.

Music emerges from this primordial need, this blessed ‘rage for order’, because it helps us to live our lives by allowing us to find ‘ghostlier demarcations’, which are lines or boundaries between mind and the world, between self and nature, matter and spirit. In finding language to express this, the composer connects us to some prior reality, linking us back (as in re-ligio, the root of religion) to our origins: that is, in music, we encounter a language that is more concrete, more visual, more sensual, than the language of abstract thought. In its attraction to form, the language of music finds patterns that correspond in some way to what, for lack of a better word, one might refer to as ‘truth’, although the term itself is distracting (if not misleading). The truth of music is symbolic truth in that it cannot be verified by conventional means. It differs massively from scientific or philosophical truth, both of which make truth claims that lie outside the boundaries of music and poetry. One reads a piece of music and ‘knows’ whether it makes sense or not. The truth of music inheres in the language itself, the web or ‘text’ (from texere ‘to weave’). But the piece of music is also a labyrinth. One makes a journey through the piece of music, from beginning to end, moving within the timeframe of the work, its boundaries, tracking its labyrinth. It is only so long as the music is played, or, as Gabriel Josipovici writes in ‘The World and the Book’, ‘so long as the human imagination is travelling along the arteries of the labyrinth, that we are aware of the boundaries, and therefore of what lies beyond them’.

And so to answer indirectly what musicology means to me? Like all committed musicologists, I have come to realize that music is where I have learned a good part of the little we can know about living. Certainly we learn from vital experience, but experience can be direct or vicarious, and the most vicarious experience I know is the one we encounter in musical and literary works. Consider the musical and dramatic immediacy of Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ and the modes of behaviour contained in the subtle revelations of Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’, the bitterness of loss in Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, the stunning aperçus of Felix Mendelssohn, the world-weary sophistication of Wagner’s ‘Flying Dutchman’, the dazzling experimentation of Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’. Then remember the astonishment of the utterly alien and new that washed over you the first time you encountered the music of Stravinsky, or became aware of the extraordinary precision of Debussy’s orchestral colour. And it is unthinkable, almost unbearable, to contemplate the possibility of being deprived of those universes in a life where the contemplation of such works did not form a central part of it.

Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview
Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview

The first thing that strikes me is the presence of family and friends in that mix, and how essential a balanced life is in fulfilling our goals."


You are an exceptionally hard-working individual, and your devotion to musicology is inspiring: what drives you?

Love drives me! When I’m happy, I write quickly and readily.


How do you combine such a productive writing career with your lecturing and teaching commitments?

The first thing that strikes me is the presence of family and friends in that mix, and how essential a balanced life is in fulfilling our goals.

One of the wonderful things about our profession is being able to share your work with others through teaching, conferences and guest lectures, through which I’ve met amazing individuals. It opens you up in a particular way which has to do with the intellectual distinction of the people around you, and many friendships have been nurtured in those vivid environments. A friendship, especially one that involves musicians, artists, musicologists, writers, is a field of force: you awaken to different things in yourself through different friendships. But a balance needs to be struck between sharing work through lectures, and safeguarding time to write. It is easier to combine giving papers and guest lectures with teaching during term time. It is harder to find sustained time to write while lecturing, correcting undergraduate and postgraduate work, answering emails and attending to college and research admin.

Essentially I get up in the morning to write about music, but I also love sharing that knowledge with colleagues and students. It is a two-way process: what you give is one thing and what they pick up is another. The receptiveness of students is as decisive as what you offer them. Lecturing every week is more demanding than people realize. It is important to be rested and energetic so you can give your best.


What does your writing process involve, and what did the award of the DMus in Musicology mean to you?

I wrote the first two chapters of my doctoral dissertation in longhand: I love the feeling of a good pen in hand—a gathering of energy as you begin to write. Now I tend to warm myself up by staring at the screen, rereading what I have written. Before you know it, you are fiddling at the keyboard in a state of self-entrancement.

The DMus meant so much to me to have my musicological work recognized on home ground. I had a very strong sense of that on my recent election as a member of The Royal Irish Academy.


Who do you count among your influences to date (music or otherwise)?

Susan Youens, musicologist extraordinaire and very dear friend, has been an unstinting support and guide. Walther Dürr, Director of the Neue Schubert Ausgabe, is a warm, steady, generous spirit in Schubert Studies, and Graham Johnson’s contribution to our knowledge of Schubert is extraordinary. In addition to this triumvirate of Schubertian scholars of song, I love the way Scott Burnham writes about music—so intelligently, so musically and so humanely. Martin Swales is the equivalent for me in German studies, and Nicholas Boyle is one of my guiding stars in Goethean scholarship. To feel his approval of my work has been a precious thing. Being treated as an equal by the scholars you especially admire can affect you inestimably; it feeds your confidence and fuels your need to write more.

There were many formative influences in my earlier years too. I loved Joseph Groocock and was delighted to be able to pay tribute to him in the Encyclopedia of Music in Ireland. Dan Farrelly, my Doktorvater in German Studies, reoriented my thinking: what I responded to in him was a wonderful inner freedom; I like to think his generosity of spirit is something I pass on to my research students. I recognize that quality of openness in Harry White, my Doktorvater in Musicology, who is wonderfully cogent as a lecturer, but also a terrific presence in Irish musicology.

Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview
Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview

As a supervisor of Doctoral and Masters students, what advice would you give to would-be musicologists?

Musicology, like any other artistic and scholarly practice, is a vocation that calls to deep, resonating parts of our psyches; it is not something musicologists can be dissuaded from doing, or would abandon easily. I try to nurture in students this love of the discipline, and a commitment to self-growth, which is very much part of undertaking a doctorate.

Most students at some point complain about, or at least experience, an acute sense of isolation. Yet one of the reasons we write—though not the only one—is to communicate with and affect as many people as possible. At the very best level, the musicologist’s work is making connections to tradition, keeping it alive by constantly challenging and debating its contours. It creates what Shelley would have once called ‘new materials of knowledge’ and I try to remind students of this chain of ideas among scholars, with those who have gone before us and with our contemporaries.

Only a fool would think the musicological environment (like any other) is free of resentment. At a time when academic positions are scare and the environment so competitive, it is especially important that students support each other.


What are your thoughts on the maxim, ‘publish or perish’, that is held over the heads of all young academics, and indeed established scholars?

Obviously, you can detect this maxim in some of the literature which is published. I would encourage students to publish: the moment of publication is always a moment of change. You begin to read about your work in other people’s books and the chain of ideas continues.


So many musicologists never get the opportunity to work alongside the source subject of their analysis — the living composer. You have been fortunate to write about the works of your husband Seóirse Bodley. What was the process like in terms of the coming together of ideas, and the organic development of the analysis?

I’ve published a number of apographs with Seóirse—the first on his masses when I was Head of Music at Mater Dei, and the second two on his song cycles. Many happy hours were spent listening to and discussing these works. I realize how immensely privileged I am to have enjoyed private renditions of both cycles at our home, and to have watched the Goethe settings come into existence. The memory of him singing and playing through each song is a pearl beyond price.

The process of writing about Seóirse’s works goes beyond that experience. After those discussions I spent time thinking about and writing about the works as I perceived them; in each of the apographs, Seóirse has been surprised by what I have written and claims it enables him to see his music in different ways. The last apograph we did together, A Community of the Imagination: Seóirse Bodley’s Goethe Settings, was very special for me in that Seóirse’s artistic gifts enveloped both our interests. John Buckley recognized this at the launch where he called the book a jointly-authored monograph (my commentary on the settings runs to 60 pages, Seoirse’s scores make up a further 80 pages). The book contains Seóirse’s first Goethe setting, ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ which was written for the launch of my first monograph, Schubert’s Goethe Settings. The setting captures so beautifully the stillness evoked in Goethe’s poem and experienced on our memorable visit to Illmenau together. His two Goethe song cycles, Mignon und der Harfner (2004), and Gretchen (2012) were both written for conferences I organized in Maynooth.


How did the contract to write the new biography on Schubert by Yale University Press come about?

I gave a guest lecture for the 20th anniversary of the Schubert Institute UK at the Institute of Musical Research in London. The lecture on Schubert’s Harper settings, critiqued the notion of music as autobiography. The music editor from Yale University Press was at that lecture, approached me afterwards, and invited me to submit a proposal for a new biography on Schubert. I took a couple of months to revisit exiting English and German-language biographies. I knew in writing this biography my aims must be clear. When I submitted the proposal, the biography was commissioned.

By what method do you structure such a mammoth task, and condense such a vast body of scholarship?

Writing a biography is different to other forms of scholarly writing. The portrayal of a life must present clarity: it involves years of research, writing ability and it tests your skills of human understanding. A biography must contain wonderfully researched detail, but it is also expected to portray, by implication, how Schubert’s life connects with the more universal aspects of the human condition: the common themes and preoccupations that fascinate us about life: from family to career, from the love to lost friendships, from childhood to death.

There are a whole host of questions which accompany such a commission: how I will write it? For whom am I writing? Who is my potential audience, and how can I make my biography sufficiently compelling that it will respond to central issues in Schubert studies while attracting the educated reader? A further challenge is the vast amount of music Schubert composed, drawing up a works list of familiar and neglected works.

In accepting this commission, I knew my aims in writing this biography must be clear because I will be challenged on these all the way through research, writing, publication and reception of the book. My own curiosity about Schubert’s life and my love of his music led me to accept the commission—the deeper meaning is a search to find meaning in a life.


What are your thoughts on the current landscape of Irish musicology, and do you have any hopes for it going forward?

In the current landscape I believe it is imperative to argue for the cultural significance of musicology, and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the musicologist’s role. I would like to stimulate a new consideration of an area of music that—in the wider musical community in Ireland and beyond—is too often ignored, misunderstood or misrepresented.

At a time when the government is calling for a new level of connectedness between higher education and wider society, it is also worth asking: how does musicology relate to the ‘public voice’—the voice of culture at large? While it could equally be argued that one of the blessings of musicology is that is has no commercial value, no position in the marketplace (but nevertheless possesses great value for those who understand its possibilities, its range and reasons), musicology might do well to reassert its active social character and embrace more broadly not just the published scholar, but also the journalist, the writer of programme notes, the teacher, the radio broadcaster and any others in a position to affect the wider discourse on music. There is a dire need for a vocabulary of some precision when it comes to writing about music: musicologists could selectively use their knowledge, critical sophistication, articulateness and position to help establish such a practice.

In a time of economic crisis, it is easy to feel powerless to effect change but there are many ways in which we can take an active influence. Far beyond essentially pernicious anxieties of influence, musicologists learn their craft from one another, just as musicians do. The days of direct apprenticeship are over, for the most part, except of course, in formal academic settings (research degrees, summer schools, conservatory studies), but musicologists can find mentors in other ways. I believe it is crucial in nurturing the novitiates of our discipline. The more encounters available to fledgling musicologists, the greater the potential flow of creative influence, the more irresistible the spark that ignites the musicological imagination.

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