Photo of Susan McClary sitting at a harpsichord
Photo credit: Mike Sands

5 questions with… groundbreaking musicologist Susan McClary

Susan McClary’s passion for music began in the cradle. Her father, believing knowing classical music to be the key to upward mobility, played it for his daughter day and night.

As she got older, McClary further explored music by learning to play the piano and violin, cementing her future career early on.

“Once you’ve decided you’re going to be a musician, you can’t imagine being anything else,” said McClary, now a professor of music and head of musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

But McClary’s area of study in the field was anything but typical for a musicologist in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when her career was taking root.

“My career is very bizarre,” McClary said. “It just kind of careened from one thing to another.”

Asking new questions

From her graduate school days at Harvard University on, McClary was inspired by a desire to understand how music works—its role in culture and how it affects people. So she began, she said, by asking questions no one else was in musicology.

“When I was being trained, we thought of music as being abstract—completely separated from society—but that never made any sense to me,” she said.

So she set out to prove music didn’t exist in a vacuum; that it was influenced by the world in which it existed.

Focusing on the 17th century—a period sandwiched between what were regarded as the rational periods of the Renaissance and Enlightenment—McClary sought to make grammatical and cultural sense of the music composed during this volatile moment.

And in her 1991 book Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, McClary ventured into controversial territory, bringing gender and sexuality to the forefront by examining their interaction with music.

“When I started talking and writing about those issues, it was really explosive,” she said. “That is my claim to fame.”

That, and being named a 1995 MacArthur Foundation Fellow while at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Throughout her career, McClary has authored 10 books, with her most recent one published in January. Titled The Passions of Peter Sellars: Staging the Music, the book traces the career of Peter Sellars, a contemporary director that has re-envisioned many classic operas and oratorios.

Susan McClary’s career at CWRU

Recently, McClary, who came to Case Western Reserve in 2011, was appointed the university’s Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music, which supports a faculty position between Case Western Reserve and the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM). It also contributes to maintaining the university’s early music program, a topic about which McClary is passionate.

In October, McClary directed early music program students in a 17th-century oratorio from a manuscript she transcribed and translated, bringing her back to the studies that launched her in the field.

The performance, she said, was “one of the highlights of my career,” she said.

Get to know McClary more in this week’s five questions.

1. What new hobby would you pursue if you had more time?

I would just continue to do what I do, which is listen to music, play music on the harpsichord, read novels and watch movies. Those are the things I always do when I have any extra time. I can’t imagine coming up with another hobby.

2. Where is your favorite spot on or near campus to work, read or study?

There’s a place in the Michelson and Morley restaurant where I go when I need to have down time, need to prepare for classes or just need to be away from people. When I come in by myself, the waiters all know that’s where I’m supposed to go.

3. What new place would you most like to travel?

I have given keynote addresses on every continent except Antarctica; the penguins haven’t invited me yet. I also would like to see Egypt—that’s a place I’ve never been and would like to.

There are places I would like to visit again, too; I loved visiting South Africa and Tasmania. My favorite place where I usually go in the summer is Sitges, a little beach town south of Barcelona.

4. If you could learn another language, what would you choose?

What I tell most students in the humanities is that they probably need to learn Chinese and Arabic. Those are the languages we’re going to need in order to negotiate the world we’re coming into.

I am able to read French and Spanish—I read novels in those languages all the time. I also read German, Italian, Dutch, and Catalan, but all of those languages have become a bit rusty.

I think instead of trying for something new, I’d go back and brush up on my Latin, which really just brings everything into focus.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The early music performance program, which is astonishing. There is almost nothing like this at other institutions. We have performers who come here to reconstruct performance practices from all of European history.

I also love the joint music program between Case [Western Reserve] and CIM. I have access to the next generation of concert artists in my classes. What could be better than that?