By the Musical Way #8


Cambridge University nurtures and protects some reticent scholars: uncelebrated people who pursue arcane fields of research that are important to them. Because the university provides solid support, such scholars remain in post without threat. What is a university for if not to encourage the study of everything?

During the 1960s, in the days of the BBC ‘Third Programme’, one such scholar in the Department of Music at Cambridge University was immersed in researching ‘Vowel inflexions in the choral works of Giovanni Palestrina’. Hmm. At the time, I didn’t quite know what that meant, and still don’t today, but apparently someone at the BBC did. The scholar received an invitation from a Third Programme producer asking him to give a 15-minute broadcast on his topic during the interval of a concert devoted to late 16th century sacred music.

He was flattered, but wondered whether he had the nerve to talk on his much-loved subject without fluffing it and doing harm rather than good. Then he saw at the foot of the letter, ‘The fee will be £50.’ He wrote back, ‘Glad to accept. Do you want the fee now or shall I pay on arrival?’ He thought it was a bit of a bargain.