Music professor wins top academic senate honor

Anna Maria Busse Berger sitting at piano
Anna Maria Busse Berger, who has taught at UC Davis since 1989, is only the second music faculty member to receive the award since it was established in 1942.

Anna Maria Busse Berger’s research about German missionaries exploring music in Africa came from a personal place. In 1959, her missionary father moved the family to Tanzania.

“My father, who later became an anthropologist, wrote a number of books on African languages and did a major ethnographic study of the Nyakyusa people in Tanzania,” said Busse Berger, a University of California, Davis, music professor. “He died when I was 22 and I was very close to him.”

As this year’s winner of the Faculty Research Lecture Award, the Academic Senate’s highest honor, she’ll give a lecture titled “In Search of Medieval Music in Africa” May 5. The event at the Student Community Center at UC Davis starts at 5:15 p.m., and Busse Berger will give her talk at 6:55 p.m.

An intrepid scholar

Busse Berger, who has taught at UC Davis since 1989, is only the second music faculty member to receive the award since it was established in 1942.

“Professor Busse Berger is an intrepid and influential scholar whose willingness to question fundamental assumptions about medieval music-making has profoundly altered modern understandings of history,” said music department chair Henry Spiller. “She is also a generous mentor to her colleagues and graduate students, and a charismatic and witty classroom lecturer.”

Her lecture will address what happened when literate European missionaries introduced East African oral societies to writing and Western music. She is working on a book about German missionaries who searched for connections between western medieval and renaissance music and African music, and who documented African musical forms that have disappeared.

Oral versus written traditions in music are not new areas for Busse Berger. In her 2005 book “Medieval Music and the Art of Memory” she argued that composers of the period worked out polyphonic composition in the mind rather than written scores.

From a musical family

That Busse Berger, a native of Hamburg, Germany, went into music wasn’t a surprise.

“Everyone in our family, and there were five children, played musical instruments and sang in the choir,” she said. She planned to go to medical school, but was told her flute playing was so good she should pursue performance. She may have been a proficient player, but she didn’t enjoy it.

“As part of my music studies I had to write a 100-page paper and I thought that was much more fun than playing flute,” she said. Her enjoyment of studying music rather than performing music led her to musicology. She studied in Germany and Norway and earned her doctorate in musicology from Boston University. She and her husband, the musicologist Karol Berger, moved to California in 1982. He is a professor at Stanford University.

Her work has received top awards from the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology and Society for Music Theory.

“I cannot emphasize how extraordinary it is for one scholar to receive ‘best scholarship’ awards from the three major professional music societies,” wrote her music department colleague, professor Christopher Reynolds in nominating her. “To my knowledge no one has ever received them from all three.”

She has also won the Austrian Science Fund Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and next year will be a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Enjoys teaching at UC Davis

Although her research has garnered her much attention, she very much enjoys teaching.

“I love to teach both undergraduate and graduate research seminars, the undergraduate survey class for music majors and regularly teach classes on Mozart and Beethoven to nonmusic majors,” Busse Berger said. “It’s wonderful to have students who have never been to a concert become excited about music. They’re so open and curious.

“My entire career has been at UC Davis and I’ve been happy here. It’s a wonderful university and a great department.”

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Jeffrey Day, Arts, humanities and social sciences, 530-219-8258,