It was a great honor to work as a research assistant for three years (1976-1979) for Dr. H. Lowen Marshall, chair of the Department of Music, Mercer University 1974-1997. In addition to department chair, Dr. Marshall also taught music history, published important research and he also conducted the Mercer University Choir my freshman and sophomore years.
My years as Dr. Marshall's research assistant initially began as a way for me to earn credit for a major research paper in Dr. Marshall's Renaissance and Baroque music history class. Dr. Marshall's research uncovered a composer from the 1500s, Georg Prenner, who was unknown to modern day music scholars. He spent years searching for Prenner's work in obscure places such as a monastery in Germany and even in areas of what was then known as "behind the iron curtain." Prenner's work turned out to be an important part of music history.
When Dr. Marshall first introduced the idea, he suggested that if I succeeded with the initial phase of the project, working to get credit for his class, he would request a research grant from the university. If the grant came through I would be paid as his research assistant. I am honored and humbled that I had a chance to work for Dr. Marshall in the initial phase of transcribing the motets of Georg Prenner.
My first introduction to Georg Prenner was sitting in front of a large microfilm machine in Mercer's library. Dr. Marshall pulled a roll of film from his briefcase and threaded it through the machine. (This was before the age of the personal computer.) Suddenly I was faced with sixteenth century printing and music written in a notation looking nothing like anything I had ever seen. (I immediately felt overwhelmed and inadequate.) Dr. Marshall pointed out the intricate art at the beginning of each motet. and the tiny lines between each note indicating how the printer had painstakingly laid each note of the composition in place before applying the ink and printing. It was fascinating, beautiful, exciting and ... scary. He then took me to the music history section of the library and pulled a large reference book explaining the music notation of the 1500's. He suggested I read and study the topic thoroughly before beginning my work. As he handed over his precious "baby" ... that first roll of film, he threatened my life if I lost it. His parting words were, "I won't be on campus much during the summer but feel free to call me at home if you run into trouble."
Before the sun went down I knew I was in trouble....
Prenner's contribution to the music world was a form of music known as the motet. Motets were 3-7 voice parts, often sung in churches but some were secular. Most of Prenner's work was sacred. The rules of music in the 1500's were quite strict and from my research I learned that if I encountered parallel octaves or parallel fifths (considered a dissonance during the Renaissance) I had either made a mistake in my transcribing or something was missing in the manuscript. The very first motet on the microfilm was a canon (Similar to a round. Think about singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round...) I worked for 2 days trying to figure out that "simple" canon. There was no indication in the music regarding when the second, third, etc. voices were to enter. Every time I tried a different approach, I knew it was incorrect because I encountered a dissonance.
I did NOT want to call Dr. Marshall and ask him to come back to campus during his summer break. This was the end of my freshman year and I had not yet spent enough time with him to recognize his generous spirit and patience. During those early years when he conducted the Mercer Choir I can still remember him trying to get the alto section to lighten up a bit on our part and he demonstrated a phrase from Westside Story, singing, "I feel pretty," and the entire choir fell out laughing. His face blushed a bright red.and he almost chuckled. He then quickly brushed us off and we were back to practice... but I was certain when he saw my first attempts at transcribing Renaissance music, he was going to think I couldn't cut it. I knew I couldn't afford to waste time and I had tried every potential possibility I could imagine to transcribe that first motet and nothing worked.
That night I picked up the phone and dialed his home number:
"Dr. Marshall, I hate to bother you at home. I've done my research and I've worked on that first canon for hours and something is wrong. I can't make it work. There's a problem."
He simply said, "I'll meet you in my office on campus at 9 AM tomorrow."
The next morning he was sitting at his desk when I arrived. With great trepidation, I handed him my notebook of staff paper, the first page was beginning to look a bit worn because I had filled in sections and then had to erase it, repeatedly. With what appeared to be a confident hand Dr. Marshall grabbed a pencil and proceeded to work out that first canon. He worked for 15 minutes as I looked over his shoulder and nervously shifted from one foot to another behind his desk. He offered me a seat and he worked for about an hour before he politely suggested, "Perhaps you incorrectly transcribed it from the microfilm. Let's go to the library."
The walk from Ware Hall to Stetson Library seemed like a marathon. Dr. Marshal sat down at the microfilm machine and I handed over the roll of film I had been carefully guarding for two days. It wasn't long before he said, "What you've done is correct but there is a problem somewhere. Go to work with the second motet and give it a try and I'll keep working with this one." I was thrilled when I completed the second motet and as far as I could surmise, I had succeeded.
I received an A for my research in his music history class and spent the rest of my career at Mercer, working as a research assistant for Dr. Marshall. Al and I were married and I was about to give birth to our first child when I handed over the last of my work three years later. He called me after Gina was born and told me that the bigger I got towards the end of my pregnancy, the more sloppy my handwriting became because I couldn't get close enough to the microfilm machine to anchor my notebook. By that time, he knew my dedication to him and to his work and he was graciously appreciative. He lamented that he had worked on that first canon for three years and was still stumped but assured me he would figure it out. The publisher had promised him ten free copies once Prenner came off the press and he promised to send me a free copy. He also told me he would include me in the acknowledgements, something he didn't have to do since I had been paid for my work.
Over the years, I saw Dr. Marshall on Mercer's campus and at the Grand Opera House when we attended recitals and concerts. He always made the effort to come over and speak and assure me, "I'm still working on that canon and the last details of the Prenner." Over the next two decades we moved several times but every few years the phone would ring and he would give me a quick update.
In the 90's Dr. Marshall called to let me know he had finally figured out the issue with the canon and the manuscript was with the publishers. One of Mercer's choral ensembles performed Prenner's motets in Willingham Chapel back in the 90's and we attended that concert. During my years of working on the transcription, I often went to the practice rooms on campus and pulled out my notebook and tried playing all of the voice parts. Reading 5-7 staffs of moving music was never a skill I accomplished with ease. It was exciting to finally hear Georg Prenner's music performed.
In 1997, Dr. Marshall called to tell me that Prenner was published and sitting on his desk. He sounded like a proud father describing his child: "It took a long time but the finished work is beautiful. I'm so pleased and I think you will be, too. It will be in almost every major university library in the world. I put a copy in the mail for you today." He thanked me for working with him during my years at Mercer. He had just retired and he and his wife, Dory, were moving to Maine.
I will always be grateful for the opportunity H. Lowen Marshall gave to this struggling student ending her freshman year at Mercer. It still amazes me that Dr. Marshall remembered every commitment he made to me when I started transcribing Prenner's motets for credit in his course up until the day he signed a copy of the published work and sent it to me - 21 years later. When it arrived, I was amazed at its simple beauty. I found my name in the acknowledgements but it was his his signing in the front cover that brought tears to my eyes:
In friendship and appreciation
H. Lowen Marshall May 12, 1997.
Dr. H. Lowen Marshall's dedication, persistence and the fact that he kept me in the loop for 21 years as we waited for Prenner to come off the press makes me so thankful I knew him not only as my professor of music history but as a man of great character ...a rare jewel.
The Motets of Georg Prenner is too beautiful to keep in a book shelf. I keep it encased beneath glass, in a table between my piano and our antique organ. Ever so often, one of my students takes notice and asks about "the pretty book." I always try to take a few minutes to pull it out and share with them its significance and my appreciation for Dr. H. Lowen Marshall and Georg Prenner.