Annual Ranck Lecture Celebrates American History through Music
April 5, 2019   //   By:   //   Achievements

On April 3, Elizabethtown community members and College faculty filled the pew-style benches of Zug Recital Hall. The eager assembly faced a stage where E. Douglas Bomberger, professor of music in the Fine and Performing Arts Division, stood before a Steinway grand piano to present the Ranck Lecture entitled ‘Listening to History.’

“[Bomberger] is truly a Renaissance man,” said David Kenley, professor of history and chair of the College’s History Department. He introduced Bomberger to the audience as a colleague and as a friend. Kenley described him as “soft-spoken and unpretentious” but a “fierce advocate for his students, his profession, and the college as a whole.”

 The Professional Development Committee, which selects the award’s recipient from a list of faculty peer nominations, agreed. “You won’t find somebody more invested in the students,” said Anne Gross, a member of the committee and assistant professor of voice at E-town. She said Bomberger’s nomination stood out because of his recent book, “Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture.” She called the publication “a little more groundbreaking in our field.”

In his lecture, Bomberger emphasized this connection between music and American culture. He opened with a question he commonly received: “What does music have to do with history?” He responded, “For me, the answer is practically everything.”

Bomberger structured his lecture around live piano performances of three songs by the American composer Edward MacDowell: “To A Wild Rose,” “A Deserted Farm,” and “From an Indian Lodge.” Each performance concluded with an anecdote on the historical context buffering the piece and with audience applause. John P. Ranck ’58, professor of chemistry emeritus and the eponym of the award, sat amid the clapping spectators.

Bomberger described “To A Wild Rose” as a “deceptively simple” melody, and he connected this simplicity with the rise of mass piano production. He claimed the piece was written to be performed on “an upright piano by an amateur,” reflecting the shift in piano advertising from a luxury to a middle-class household necessity. Such advertising techniques, he argued, are used by modern companies; for example, he compared this to Steve Jobs’s campaign to transform iPhones from extravagance to an essential item.

Bomberger’s next piece, “A Deserted Farm,” touched on the melancholy of abandoned agricultural buildings. While there are no population statistics nor economic figures to quantify the exodus of American farmers in the 1850s, Bomberger believes music can tell us “how this historical [migration] feels.” He traced the nostalgia for a vanished past to contemporary American music and played a clip of the toe-tapping 1985 song “Grandpa” by The Judds.

His final performance of “From an Indian Lodge” prompted a discussion on cultural appropriation. His lesson included more sound clips from diverse artists: from the cellist Yo-Yo Ma to the rap group Run DMC. Bomberger called this “blending of diverse ethnic traditions” a type of “hybrid music.” He celebrated this hybridization as part of the goal of musicology.

“In the humanities, our goal is to connect the arts and literature to people,” said Bomberger. “And so we approach all of our work from that standpoint. It’s very much centered on human beings, their accomplishments, their attempts, their failures, all those things that go into the human condition … Our subject really is human culture.”

The lecture ended with a question and answer session, in which one audience member asked what’s next for music. “The one thing historians are really bad at is predicting the future,” said Bomberger to audience laughter. But he believes that making music will continue to be a social activity, citing the “irreplaceable thrill of making music with others.” And he believes that the humanities will continue to have a presence in higher education. “The humanities,” he said, “are what make us human.”

About the writer:

Marissa Kopp is a senior at Elizabethtown College dual majoring in Environmental Science and Professional Writing. She works as an In-Class Tutor of English at Harrisburg Area Community College and plans to attend the Pennsylvania State University for a Ph.D. in Ecology.

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