Rebecca Robinson, ’16, first studied abroad in Berlin the summer after her sophomore year. Though she’s been back to the city several times, she still remembers her first experience there. “I loved walking through the city and learning about the different layers of history,” she said.
Her initial trip was formative in another way, as it helped her find her history thesis topic. “My host family was two retired professors who were really interested in and focused on German history,” Robinson said. “My host father liked protest songs and German protest music, so when it came time to start the research for my honors thesis, I thought that might be something to focus on.”
Conversations with her advisor Hugh West led her to think about exploring German cultural politics from a classical music perspective. “I’m a classically trained violinist and play with the UR Symphony Orchestra, so Dr. West encouraged me to use my background,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s research focused on Berlin’s three opera companies — Deutsche Oper, based in the former West Germany, and the Staatsoper and Komishe Oper, based in the former East Germany — and the reasons why a proposed merger of the companies after the reunification of Germany failed. “My project is focused on German competition and German identity through this cultural institution war that embodies German competition in music,” she said.
Robinson returned to Berlin three times to conduct her research. “Going abroad really helped me figure out how I wanted to approach the research,” she said. “I ended up using a lot of newspaper articles to focus on the fight between the conductors of the two larger ensembles, as well as archival materials.” But she wanted to go deeper. “I really wanted to focus on the social aspects, finding out about not just what was in the newspapers,” she said.
For that, she turned to a valuable and convenient resource: University of Richmond’s new president, Ronald A. Crutcher. In addition to being an accomplished higher education administrator, Crutcher is a professional cellist who spent a year in Berlin performing with the Klemperer Trio before taking his position at Richmond. He met with Robinson in Berlin and advised her on her project.
“Dr. Crutcher helped me find a couple of additional sources and connected me with different musicians in Berlin to talk to and interview, which helped me get more perspective,” Robinson said. “It was nice to have a group of people to talk about music with, to understand what the Berlin scene looks like, and what German music is about.”
By tracing the history of the opera companies, Robinson found that each one had a specific performance style, preferred repertoire, and a following that they were willing to give up by combining forces. She discovered that their differences weren’t just due to audience separated by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War period but, rather, fostered over several centuries of competing for prestige, fame, and funding.
Robinson’s paper was recognized with the Symposium Paper Competition Award at the Arts and Sciences Student Symposium this past April, and she was also named a Fulbright grant alternate. She hopes to continue her research, diving further into German identity and competition in music, but is also considering law school, with an eye toward international law with a social focus.