“[Professor McGaghie] is an encyclopedia of music. I am constantly taken aback by the massive amount of knowledge he has,” Alexander Rack ’16 says.
“This is a very, very special piece of music,” says music professor Michael McGaghie as he faux conducts, plays air drums, and imitates a shell landing, all while listening to a booming recording of Benjamin Britten’s magnificent War Requiem.
McGaghie, a popular new choral conductor at Macalester, is bringing his considerable energy and exhaustive musical background to bear on the first non-ensemble class he’s taught at the college, Passions and Requiems. In a musical survey ranging from chant through the Bach St. John Passion and Mozart Requiem and on to more modern pieces, the course has been, says McGaghie, “a blast and consuming all my available energy.”
The students, most of them music majors and minors, are responsible for listening to many compositions, reading academic analyses, and writing a trio of essays along with taking the usual exams. Yet it’s the music that holds the magic, says Alexander Rack ‘16 (Swarthmore, Pa.). “So many times in this class I’ve gotten chills from the music,” he says. Adds McGaghie, “It’s been fun to see their eyes light up at each new work we study.”
Although most students are familiar with the better-known pieces, such as the Bach and Mozart, there are many more they’d never heard of before enrolling in the class. The course’s syllabus also includes works by Schütz, Michael Haydn, Distler, Penderecki, among many other composers. “The breadth of what we’re covering is amazing,” says Rack, “Mike is an encyclopedia of music. I am constantly taken aback by the massive amount of knowledge he has.”
Even with a well-known piece like the Britten, McGaghie was able to add much historical context—when and how it was commissioned, the young war poet who wrote the text, the identity of the original soloists, etc. Information and musical insights are important, naturally (“the tritone used throughout is treated as a symbol of distance,” says McGaghie at one point) but just as vital is the instructor’s sheer joy in the music.
In what feels like something of an understatement, Rack says, “Mike really enjoys what he’s teaching, and our response to the music.”
That student response, McGaghie points out, is colored and expanded by the broad education enjoyed by Macalester students. “The great thing about teaching at a liberal arts college is that we can discuss so many facets of the music—how it touches on various things like theology, politics, and literature, and so on. Everybody in the class has a special strength to contribute,” he says. “You don’t always get that at a music conservatory.”
Even while knee deep in passions and requiems, McGaghie explodes with ideas for future courses. “I would love to teach a class on oratorio, one on music criticism, and one on composers as authors,” he says, “and definitely one on Renaissance polyphony.”
McGaghie’s enthusiasm, always palpable, was perhaps most fully captured in an earlier class session when, while listening to the Berlioz’s “Grand Messe des Morts,” he burst out: “I have so much to say about this piece!” Lucky for those Macalester music students.