Obituary: Fritz Reckow

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The Independent Culture
BY GENERAL agreement, Fritz Reckow had one of the sharpest brains in all musicology - "a mind like a needle", in the words of one admiring colleague. His heart lay in the Middle Ages, but his relentless curiosity, which extended from medieval organum through Wagner and Bizet to questions of computer applications in music, meant that his interest was directly engaged across the entire eight centuries of Western music.

Reckow was faithful to the south-eastern corner of Germany for most of his life. He was born and schooled in Bamberg, before moving in 1959 just down the road to the University of Erlangen, a little to the north of Nuremberg, to study musicology. His studies were completed at the universities of Basel and Freiburg-im-Breisgau, where in 1965 he was awarded a doctorate in musicology. His subsidiary topics were medieval history (Middle Latin philology in particular) and New Testament literature and exegetics.

From 1965 to 1979 he worked with the renowned musicologist Hans-Heinrich Eggebrecht on the Dictionary of Musical Terminology, published under the auspices of the Institute for Musicology of the University of Freiburg- im-Breisgau and the Mainz Academy of Science and Literature; from 1973, for six years, Reckow was in charge of the project.

He began lecturing - and a Reckow lecture was guaranteed to stimulate lively interest - at Freiburg in 1966, with occasional secondments to the universities of Basel and Hamburg. In 1979 he turned down the offer of a chair at the University of Vienna in favour of a professorship in Kiel, where he also became director of the Musicological Institute. He was to remain in Kiel until 1987, when in the final move of his career he took up a similar position at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg.

Fritz Reckow's contribution to the study of medieval music was enormous. Two related themes that ran intertwined through his career were the relationship between music and language, and the idea of music as language, themselves topoi borrowed from the medieval mind. Indeed, this ability to cast off the academic accretions of the intervening centuries and examine a problem with his curiosity uncluttered by anachronisms was one of the distinguishing features of Reckow's scholarship, as of all outstanding medievalists. He realised straightaway that understanding the medieval mind meant embracing its own intellectual constructs - linguistic, mathematical and architectural - and sought to understand medieval music in those terms.

Reckow first made his mark with his PhD dissertation, a seminal examination of "Anonymous IV", a 13th-century treatise that is one of the most important surviving sources of information about the polyphony composed and performed at Notre Dame in Paris in the late 12th and early 13th centuries - the beginnings, in fact, of the western musical tradition. Among the topics that Reckow tackled in this thesis was the problem of rhythm in two-voice organum - an obscure enough subject, perhaps, if you're standing outside the discipline, but Reckow's unexpected insights turned the academic status quo on its head: it was clear that a major analytical mind had emerged.

A stream of further articles consolidated his position as probably the most radical and fruitful mind in medieval musicology, culminating in his path-breaking - or rather, path-reestablishing - Organum-Begriff und fruhe Mehrstimmigkeit ("The Concept of Organum and Early Polyphony", 1975), which again derived its power from Reckow's ability to move inside the medieval imagination.

He took as his starting-point the analogy drawn by many medieval commentators between the organ and polyphonic music and assiduously traced that relationship back to the mathematical constructs of the ancient Greeks. The American musicologist Charles Atkinson, in recommending Reckow for a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ohio State University (a position he held in 1986), described "The Concept of Organum" as "without doubt one of the most impressive and insightful studies I have ever read". Musicologists still speak of this monograph with a respect which approaches awe.

Yet Fritz Reckow wasn't some ivory-tower intellectual: music mattered to him as living expression and active pursuit. He was an important figure in Nuremberg's International Organ Week. He fought - successfully - to have the offices of the complete edition of Wagner's letters transferred to his university, Erlangen, a short drive south through rural Franconia from the hallowed portals of Bayreuth. And, marrying the theoretical with the practical, one of his (still unpublished) studies tackled the question of naturalness vs craft in the composition of music from Lully, the first composer of the Sun King, to the first enfant terrible of the 20th century, Stravinsky.

Reckow would have laughed at the anachronism, but the image of Umberto Eco's cowled monastic investigator in The Name of the Rose presses forward. What this particular investigator discovered quite simply rewrote history.

Fritz Reckow, musicologist: born Bamberg, Germany 29 March 1940; married 1964 Elke Vollbrecht; died Erlangen, Germany 30 August 1998.