Graduate Research Colloquium: Kerry McCarthy (University of Oxford)

Around 1530, at the high-water mark of traditional musical and devotional practice before the Reformation, approximately one in every fifty literate people in England was employed as a church singer of some sort. Unlike other ecclesiastical arts such as painting, sculpture, or indeed musical composition, the performance of polyphonic music was an art that could only be practiced in groups. Singing polyphony or complex plainchant in public ceremonies was also an inherently rather risky activity, and many contemporary accounts describe things going awry in various ways. Musicians lose their way during nighttime services because of insufficient lighting; they antagonize colleagues by blocking their view of the music; they engage in (and lose) sight-singing contests; ‘plainsong faileth’ and choir members are ‘negligent and wild’; a cathedral singer collects medicinal recipes to ease ‘roughness of the pipes’; one unfortunate performer loses his voice during a live performance in front of the Queen, but saves the day by breaking the fourth wall. Some documents (such as the relevant section of the early-Tudor Leconfield Proverbs) are almost entirely preoccupied with what can go wrong. The sixteenth century in England is justly celebrated as a golden age of ensemble singing, but we can also learn a lot from the failures, mistakes, and vulnerabilities of those generations of singers.

Free to attend, register here.

Kerry McCarthy is a musician and author known for her work on the English Renaissance. Her recent publications include biographies of Thomas Tallis (Oxford University Press; 2021 AMS award for early music book of the year) and William Byrd (Oxford University Press; 2014 ASCAP Slonimsky Award for musical biography of the year.) She is also active as a professional singer, and her current research project is a wide-ranging study of the lives of singers in Tudor England. She will be in residence as a Visiting Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford during Trinity Term 2022.

About the series:
The Colloquia feature leading figures, as well as younger scholars, from across the world. They present their research in papers on all kinds of music-related topics. Graduate students Marinu Leccia and Judith Valerie Engel organise the series. Presentations are followed by a discussion and virtual drinks reception. Free and open to all Music Faculty students and members. If you would like more information, please email or