Mary Channen Caldwell’s research on repertoires of European vocal music ca. 1100-1600 engages with the complementary disciplines of historical musicology and medieval studies and is driven by interests in the cultural, ritual, textual, and material aspects of music and its production, reception, and transmission. Across her research and teaching, Caldwell employs methodologies that recognize the importance of notes on the page (incomplete as they are in pre-modern sources) while seeing these abstract reflections of music as part of complex systems of cultural meaning and history. While music is always at the core, her writing and teaching connect with a range of interrelated disciplines, including manuscript studies, ritual studies, literary theory, theology and exegesis, liturgiology and hagiography, and theories of time and temporality. She also continues to cultivate a secondary research area in premodern movement and dance studies. Publications on a range of topics related to these interests appear in Early Music History, Plainsong & Medieval Music, and the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, as well as in edited volumes, including one published by the Medieval Institute’s Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series.
In Caldwell’s current book project, Song’s Return: The Inscription, Performance, and Temporality of Latin Songs and Refrains, ca. 1100-1580, she offers a critical approach to the Latin refrain—a repeated segment of text and music—and its conjoined songs, bringing renewed attention to an understudied corpus of over 400 Latin vocal works from the high and late Middle Ages. Organized around three heuristic frameworks—inscription, performance, and temporality—she explores for the first time the Latin refrain as a vibrant and multidimensional part of the varied landscape of medieval song. Song’s Return argues for the importance of the Latinate song tradition within the devotional as well as quotidian lives of clerical, monastic, and educational communities across Europe, the shared language allowing for wide dissemination. While previous scholarship on medieval Latin song has tended to ignore the refrain in the interest of reportorial and music-theoretical approaches, in Song’s Return Caldwell prioritizes the return of text and music as an epicenter of lyrical, melodic, and cultural meaning. Her second book project, Saintly Song: Musical Hagiography and the Medieval Cult of St. Nicholas, will focus on music for and about a contested figure in medieval popular devotional, St. Nicholas.