By Katherine Duke ’05

While still a junior here at Amherst, Zhuqing “Lester” Hu ’13 recently earned an honor that’s usually reserved for advanced graduate students and professors: He was invited to present an original research paper at the spring meeting of the New England chapter of the 3,600-member American Musicological Society (AMS-NE). The meeting took place on April 14 at Mount Holyoke College. Hu’s paper, titled “Towards Modal Coherence: ‘Modal Chromaticism’ in Gesualdo’s Two ‘O vos omnes’ Settings,” analyzes a pair of works by a mysterious and eccentric figure in Late Renaissance music.

In Italy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Carlo Gesualdo composed madrigals and pieces of sacred music that, in the use of a technique called chromaticism, were hundreds of years ahead of their time. And Gesualdo himself led a darkly bizarre life. “A lot has been written about him, because he was a colorful guy. He was a prince; he murdered his wife for adultery, and he murdered her lover; and, later on, he was thought to belong to satanic sects and to drink blood,” said Hu’s adviser, Professor of Music David Schneider. “He’s a sort of cult figure topic in music history, because the music was so weird and the life was so weird.”

Lester Hu ’13

“People have been taking for granted—‘Oh, he did all these crazy things, and then he had crazy music. There must be a direct and very obvious connection between these two,’” said Hu, “and these biographical stories kind of stopped scholars from actually digging into what was really going on and challenging and doubting what was actually behind his music.”

So Hu scrutinized the music itself. During a one-on-one Special Topics course last fall with Richard Sherr, the Caroline L. Wall '27 Professor of Music at Smith College, the student found two musical compositions that incorporated the same piece of Latin text. Gesualdo had composed one of these five to 10 years after the other, and there turned out to be subtle but surprising differences in the second composition: It adhered more closely to the leading musical theories of the time. “Based on my reading of historical theories, during the last decade of Gesualdo’s life, these two pieces suggest that his style had gotten more and more coherent, more and more rationalized,” said Hu, “which is the opposite to how people perceive that he was mad, he was crazy.”

With guidance from Sherr and Schneider—and after doing a great deal of reading, consulting with several UMass professors and attending an AMS conference in San Francisco in November—Hu put forth this idea in a 40-page final paper for the Special Topics course. When that paper was selected as one of only six to be presented at the AMS-NE spring meeting, he worked with Schneider to create a revised and condensed version to read to his fellow musicologists. “The professors at the conference were blown away by his sophistication and ability to answer questions,” Schneider commented after the conference. “The best scholars in Renaissance music are as impressed by Lester’s work as we are.”

“Lester is, as you might imagine, very, very driven and motivated and an independent worker,” said Schneider. “He’s really working on the level of a graduate student.”

“To me, the fact that an undergraduate paper can be admitted to a professional scholarly conference is very impressive,” the professor added. “That means that his argument is credible and convincing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true, but it means that, by the scholarly standards of the field, it’s worth being heard by other professionals, and it seems supported with real knowledge.” Schneider cannot recall any other Amherst student presenting at an AMS conference in recent years; he knows of only two undergrads, from other colleges, who have done so, and both have gone on to distinguished careers in musicology.

Though he had learned to play the piano as a child in Beijing, Hu said, he drifted away from music throughout middle school and high school. Joining the Concert Choir during his first year at Amherst revived his musical interests and abilities, and an elementary music theory class with Schneider sent him “on the music major track” (he also majors in French). After learning about Gesualdo in a music history course with Klára Móricz, the Joseph E. and Grace W. Valentine Visiting Associate Professor of Music, Hu asked Móricz and Schneider about doing a Special Topics course on the composer, and they directed him to Sherr, whose expertise is in Late Medieval and Renaissance music. Next year, Hu’s research on Gesualdo’s music will become a component of his senior thesis on 16th-century chromaticism. After graduating from Amherst, he plans to move on to a Ph.D. program in musicology and to become a professor.

“I was given this platform to grow and discover something I never imagined I would be doing. I guess that really speaks a lot about Amherst—the music department, the music program here—and also how Amherst has this wonderful Five College exchange,” Hu said. “When I think about how everything built up from my freshman year up to this point, it’s just like, Wow.”     

Photo by Rob Mattson