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Music professor wins grant for new course

It’s a good question, and we’re not just saying that—
the National Endowment for the Humanities thinks so too.


Music Professor James Martin (Credit: Envisage Studio)

Music Professor James Martin (Credit: Envisage Studios)

James Martin, professor of music at Cornell since 1981, has been awarded a $25,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a course designed to study an enduring question: “What is the relationship between tradition and innovation?” The course will be taught at least twice and will be open to students regardless of major.

The course’s major topics will be the Greek myth of Electra, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Each work deals with the tensions—and sometimes open conflict—between tradition and innovation.

In his application, Martin wrote about the breadth of the topics the course would cover and his experience with them.

“Although I have always loved and studied literature, the preparation of the Greek plays and Joyce will expand my scholarly range the most. My major research project as a NEH fellow at Columbia was Joyce and Wagner, and my major seminar presentation as a NEH fellow at Stanford was on T. Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Thus I feel capable of teaching literature in a serious way within this course. I have taught Strauss’s Elektra, but not in this context. I have taught Meistersinger before, but have never focused upon the tradition/innovation element. Wagner is at the center of my teaching and scholarly work. I am excited about the interconnections between these works and the way our thematic question will be expressed within them and between them.”

The grant program supports faculty members in the teaching and development of a new interdisciplinary course that will foster intellectual community through the study of an enduring question. These question-driven courses are designed to encourage undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.

In its first four annual competitions, the Enduring Questions program made an average of 19 awards per year, for a funding ratio of 10 percent.

Martin is chair of the music department and is the Richard and Norma Small Distinguished Professor for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years. He has been a faculty fellow at Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford, and has served as the Director of the Newberry Library ACM Program in the Humanities.