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Curiosity, Perseverance Pay Off

  • News Image
    Senior Megan McCarty discovered a previously unknown song cycle by composer Franz Liszt.
  • News Image
    Megan McCarty is helping her professor, Michael Cooper, with research for several of his book projects.

Southwestern student makes a major musical discovery

Megan McCarty, a senior music literature major at Southwestern, was taking a seminar on song cycles last year when her professor, Michael Cooper, told the students they had to write about something not covered in class for their final paper. Unsure what to do, McCarty asked Cooper for an idea.

“He suggested I look into Franz Liszt,” McCarty recalls. “I was confused at first because, to my knowledge at the time, Liszt had not written any song cycles - only individual songs.”

Nevertheless, McCarty set to work. The results of her research surprised even Cooper, who is one of the world’s foremost music scholars.

McCarty discovered that Liszt did, in fact, write a song cycle based on four poems by Victor Hugo, a prolific French writer who lived from 1802-1885. The four poems all focus on love and are titled Comment, disaient-ils (How, said the men), O! Quand je dors (Oh, when I sleep), S’il est un charmant gazon (If there is a charming green) and Enfant, si j’etais roi (Child, if I were king).

The key to discovering the song cycle was the fact that Liszt had originally published a set of six songs based on Hugo poems in 1844, and then republished four of the songs in a different order in 1859 and 1860.

“The text of the second version forms a narrative that was not present in the first version,” McCarty says. In addition to studying the texts of the four songs, she studied their musical composition to determine a common thread among the four pieces.

McCarty used the libraries at Southwestern and The University of Texas to do her research, as well as online databases. Cooper came along on some research trips to help translate publications that were in German.

“What Megan did is really extraordinary,” Cooper says. “I have never seen this level of work in an undergraduate thesis. This is advanced doctoral work in all but name.”

Cooper believes McCarty may be the first twenty-something to discover a previously unrecognized song-cycle by a major composer. “Most people who do this are in their 40s, 50s or 60s,” he says. “But most scholars go their entire career without discovering anything this important.”

Cooper says he suggested the project to McCarty because Liszt is among the least researched of the major composers. “There is a huge portion of his life we don’t know much about from a scholarly viewpoint,” he says.

Liszt, who lived from 1811-1886, was a world-famous piano player before he became a composer. Cooper says that even though Liszt set 80 poems to music, most scholarship on Liszt has focused on his piano works, for which he is best known.

“Since Liszt wrote cycles in ever other genre he worked in - including symphonic poems and piano pieces - it was logical to assume he would have written a song cycle, but no one had ever looked for this,” Cooper says. “I knew Megan had the combination of curiosity and perseverance to find something if it was there.”

Cooper and McCarty believe Liszt may have reconstituted the four songs into a song cycle in an effort to become taken more seriously as a composer. In the 19th century, it was popular for major composers to write song cycles, which are collections of songs written about a single theme or subject, often telling a story or tracing some sort of narrative, and organized so that the whole group is effectively more than the sum of its parts. Song cycles that are well-known today include Franz Schubert’s A Winter’s Journey, and Robert Schumann’s Poet’s Love.

McCarty describes the Liszt song cycle she discovered as an “engaging narrative romance” about a man and woman who are ultimately prevented from becoming a couple. She expanded her original paper for the seminar into a 40-page honors thesis, which she successfully defended in April.

Cooper says that by knowing the four pieces are part of a song cycle, audiences will finally get to hear Liszt’s voice as he wanted it to be heard.

“This enables us to right something in which we have unknowingly been wronging the composer for the past century and a half,” he says. Cooper says that because people didn’t know the four songs were part of a cycle, they have usually been performed individually or in smaller groups over the years, never as a complete set in Liszt’s desired order. The second song, Oh, when I sleep, is performed the most frequently.

Cooper says that because of McCarty’s research, future music textbooks will need to be altered to say that Liszt was a composer of song cycles.

McCarty came to Southwestern originally intending to major in music performance. However, she sustained an injury the summer before her junior year that prevented her from playing her instrument, the cello, to the level that would be required of a professional. As a result, she was forced to rethink her career plans.

“I love music and I love history, so musicology was the perfect fit for me,” she says.

After she graduates in May, McCarty plans to spend the next year reworking her Liszt paper, as well as several other papers she has written. She hopes to submit them to the Journal of Musicological Research, and present them at regional meetings of the American Musicological Society and the College Music Society. She hopes to enter a Ph.D. program in musicology in the fall of 2010.

Cooper says McCarty’s work on Liszt should help her get into a top graduate school. “Potential graduate schools will see they have an incredibly mature young scholar in her,” he says.

In the coming year, McCarty also will continue her work as Cooper’s research assistant. She recently signed a contract to be his co-author on the Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music, which will be part of a series published by Scarecrow Press. The dictionary is scheduled to be published in 2013.

McCarty also is helping Cooper on his book titled Secular Religion in Music from Mozart to Schoenberg, which is scheduled to come out in 2012.

“Professor Cooper is so passionate and knowledgeable,” McCarty says. “You can ask him about anything in music history and he has an answer for you. Plus, he really cares about his students.”