Professor Rachel Beckles Willson

Personal profile

Rachel Beckles Willson is a writer and musician who works at the intersections of composition, performance, history and politics. Her research has centered on 19th to 21st-century Hungary, Palestine and, most recently, Sicily; she has published three monographs as well as specialist articles in the sub-disciplines of analysis, historical musicology and ethnomusicology. Rachel is recipient of numerous substantial research grants from the AHRC, the British Council, the British Academy, the Humboldt Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust. She was Director of the Humanities and Arts Research Centre 2013-2016.


Research Interests

(1) Migration

As recipient of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2015-2018) I have recently been focusing on musical migration as understood through the oud. A preliminary result of this has been the building and editing of a pioneering web-resource (, which is now available in Arabic thanks to the generous support of Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad al-Thani. The project tackles questions of modernity, gender and belonging in a globalised world, developed in a series of articles and a monograph in progress. Since Spring 2017 I have been working in Eastern Sicily with recently-arrived under-age immigrants, developing educational research by running courses on song-writing, recording, performance and digital story-telling.

(2) Composition and performance

My original training was as a pianist, saxophonist and composer at the Royal Academy of Music, London. I set much of that aside when I took my first job at the University of Bristol in 2000, but thanks to a Leverhulme Study Abroad Fellowship (2013) I was able to reignite it, through study of both the oud, and Ottoman classical music, at Labyrinth Musical Seminars on Crete. One result is a major work setting poems by the 2nd-generation Italian immigrant to London Christina Rossetti (premiered in London on 30 June 2018).

(3) Music in areas of political conflict (postcolonial study, orientalism)

This broad area developed initially in my work on Soviet Hungary, but more fully when I engaged with the history and contemporary situation of Palestine. Thanks to a Fellowship for Senior Researchers from the Humboldt Foundation, I was able to complete Orientalism and Musical Mission (Cambridge 2013), offering an exploration of three types of musical imperialism—religious, state, and neoliberal—through a study of music in European and American missions to Palestinians since 1840. This book also functions as a reflection on the legacy of Edward W. Said (follow this link for an interview with me about it).

(4) Hungary

My work on Hungary goes back to 1992, when I commenced three years of British Council-funded post-graduate piano and contemporary music study at the Liszt Academy, Budapest. When I transformed myself from performer into academic I began with analysis, and a focus on music by composer György Kurtág, one of my former Professors. I then broadened into historical work to engage with the Cold War and Kurtág’s near contemporary, Ligeti, which led me to write Ligeti, Kurtág and Hungarian Music during the Cold War (Cambridge 2007). Recently I have re-engaged with Cold War Hungary in the context of Iraqi immigration and the extraordinary figure of oud player Munir Bashir. 


PhD Supervision

Current and recently-completed doctoral projects I have supervised include research on Yiddish song, chamber music performance in WWII London, Hungarian performance traditions, Kuwaiti saut, and the Tunisian oud. I welcome enquiries from students interested in working with me.


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