In April, Anne Walters Robertson, the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Music, was named dean of the Division of the Humanities. Since her arrival in 1984, Robertson has spent her entire teaching career at the University of Chicago, serving as chair of the Department of Music, deputy provost for research and education, and most recently interim dean.—J. C.

What is your current research project?

I’m working on a book on fifteenth-century music and its relationship to the emotional writing and poetry and literature of the day.

A lot of this sacred music is actually based on secular songs. It would be as though a mass of the Catholic Church might be based on “Tea for Two.” The sacred and the secular were very interchangeable in the late Middle Ages, and sometimes a secular text would actually, through allegorical reading, express the sacred thought almost better than any existent chant.

This natural mingling of the secular and the sacred [has] always puzzled music historians because it went away after the Reformation.

Can you balance your scholarship, teaching, and administration in a way that is satisfying?

It's difficult, especially in a division with as many different units as Humanities has. But I’ve always found in all these administrative assignments that the research, teaching, and administration are mutually reinforcing and nourishing.

Dealing administratively with many different departments, and reading hire and promotion cases from across the Division in so many fields, shows me an exciting range of scholarship that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, and that in turn influences both my teaching and my own scholarship. Most recently I’ve been so positively influenced by Philippe Desan’s [the Howard L. Willett professor in Romance Languages and Literatures] book on Montaigne [Montaigne: A Life (Princeton, 2016)].

Who has influenced you most as a teacher and scholar?

Philip Gossett [the late Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Music] was chair of the music department when I got here, and he hired me. He remained a really fabulous mentor for me throughout his time here until he died in June. I had an email from him as recently as when I accepted the deanship in April, offering encouragement and advice as he was wont to do.

The extraordinary thing about Philip was that even though his own work was in nineteenth-century Italian opera, he had a way of speaking that made you feel as though your work was just as important. He was really a tremendous influence on me.

If you could take any class at the University, what would it be?

I would love to start with a College Core Course, Greece and Rome: Text, Traditions, and Transformations. And I would love to work my way forward and take as many of the sequences as I could. I think it’s a marvelous undergraduate education that our students receive here.

How did you come to study medieval music?

In studying piano, I realized that I would never be a major concert player. Along the way, in my undergraduate training, I had to take music history courses, and I realized I enjoyed them.

As a youngster I did two things really seriously: one was piano and the other was Latin. I was at a school where we were required to take Latin for eight years before the end of high school.

When I was doing a master’s in musicology at Rice, one of the professors said to me, “You ought to think about medieval music. You like music, you like Latin, and you’re good at it.” So for my master’s thesis I dug up a rather obscure eleventh-century treatise by William of Hirsau, which I translated and gave a little commentary on. All the time I was doing that work, I really felt comfortable doing it. That was when I began to think about and apply seriously for graduate school in music history.

Do you speak French?

Latin and French, and I also read German. I had a Fulbright to Paris and stayed there for two years while I was doing my dissertation.

What is your favorite place to go in Paris?

The Gardens of Luxembourg. I lived a few blocks from there, and it is such a beautiful, calm, vast place right in the middle of that big city. It’s a wonderful place to go and meditate and think and exercise.

Do you still play the piano?

My way of keeping it up through the last two-and-a-half, almost three decades was that I accompanied my children. My eldest daughter is 30 now. One grew up playing oboe, the other cello, and they just thought that every mother could play the piano. Took it for granted.

That was a wonderful way for me both to interact with them and to at least keep my fingers moving. I play a little bit now. It’s just a question of having the time.

I have a beautiful Steinway Model B. A six-foot-seven-and-a-half-grand. It kind of dominates the living room. I got it in college by teaching piano lessons. My parents helped me with the down payment, and then I paid that thing off over about four years. It’s very precious to me.

What piece were you most proud of learning to play with proficiency?

Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, Number One. I played it on my senior recital in college and I kind of grew up listening to that piece. There’s this gorgeous melody in the meno mosso section, the second section of the piece. What I didn’t quite figure on was that the presto section at the end was a real killer. So I was very proud of the fact that I actually mastered it at least enough to get through the piece on my senior recital.

What is your favorite music to listen to?

I’m very eclectic in what I listen to. I like Van Morrison. In the car I listen to the Seriously Sinatra station, and I love the American songbook. And also of course I listen to classical music, but I’m not snobby about it at all. I’ll listen to anything. My husband loves jazz especially. And you know, rock music from the ’60s and ’70s.

What are you reading right now?

For my work I’m reading very carefully Andrew Brown’s Civic Ceremony and Religion in Medieval Bruges. For leisure reading, to the extent that there is any, I’m working my way through J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Photo Creds: 
John Zich