Work on medieval music helps Nyikos win prestigious award

COLUMBIA — The discovery of an ancient musical manuscript led Elizabeth Nyikos on a journey that would eventually earn her the prestigious Marshall Scholarship.

Her search was one of persistence and intelligence that took her across several countries and many decades.

It all started with a 14th century manuscript discovered at Columbia College by University of South Carolina Professor Scott Gwara. At the time, Nyikos, a USC student, was helping Gwara compile manuscripts from across the state.

Nyikos said she became intrigued by the subject after taking an elective course called “The History of the Book.”

“Ever since then I’ve been hooked on medieval music,” she said, adding that the Latin element and sacred themes are especially important to her as a Catholic.

After her course, Nyikos asked if anyone at USC worked with manuscripts and was introduced to Gwara.

When the manuscript surfaced, she said they could tell right away that it was different because it involved more than one voice. But it was incomplete.

She dedicated herself to reconstructing the musical piece by applying what she had learned through her major in piano performance and her research experience. Nyikos also worked with an Oxford University medievalist who helped unearth similar manuscripts in Italy and Spain.

Eventually, she was able to assemble all three voices and reconstruct the entire piece, but that wasn’t the end.

Music, after all, is meant to be heard.

USC’s University Chorus performed the music last November. It was the first time it had been performed as one musical piece in 600 years.

“It was incredible,” Nyikos said. “When the University Chorus performed, during rehearsals, it was so beautiful to hear it come together.”

Although Nyikos was part of the chorus, she did not participate in the first performance because she is a soprano and only the tenor and bass sections had been completed.

Since then, Nyikos has curated an exhibit of medieval music from the university’s collection and founded the medieval vocal ensemble, Canticum Novum.

Gwara, who earned a Marshall Scholarship in 1984, said Nyikos’ comprehensive study of medieval music and history made her an outstanding candidate in the Marshall competition.

Winning the scholarship is no easy feat.

Applicants come from eight regions across the United States. They are Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. The Atlanta region includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands.

Competition is fierce, to say the least.

The scholarship is awarded to up to 40 students each year. In 2008, the selection committee received 886 endorsed applications, interviewed 168 candidates, and chose 37 for the award, according to the Web site

Marshall Scholarships allow American students to study for two years at a graduate level in the United Kingdom. It covers tuition, cost of living expenses, an annual book grant, thesis grant, research and daily travel grants, and fares to and from the United States.

Nyikos said she elected to attend Oxford University for a master’s degree in musicology. She is only the second USC student to win a Marshall Scholarship since 2001.

Founded in Great Britain by an Act of Parliament in 1953 to honor U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the scholarships commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan and express the continuing gratitude of the British people to their American counterparts, according to the Web site.

Nyikos said one of the most intimidating aspects of the interview process was the trip to the British consulate in Atlanta. She said the building was huge and she was very nervous, but the people were warm and welcoming.

“It was a long process, but when I finally got the outcome, it was a surprise,” she said.

She may have been the only one that was surprised.

Nyikos started playing the piano when she was five. Now she performs competitively, teaches, and plays at Our Lady of the Hills Church, where she and her family are members.

Her parents are Leila Maria and Peter Nyikos, who is a USC math professor, and she has three sisters. Sarah plays piano, Julianna the flute, and Maria the French horn. All of the girls were homeschooled by their parents.

Nyikos said they sing at church, and love to join together for improvised three-part harmonies.

In fact, one of the things she looks forward to the most in her upcoming stint at Oxford is the chance to sing with its long-established musical ensemble group. She also is excited about working with professors in her area of research.

“I’m just looking forward to going to England,” she said. “It will be a good experience and I’m ready for it.”

Nyikos said she has conducted research in England, Spain, Italy and Hungary. Her family also travels frequently to Australia and New Zealand, where they have relatives.

Aside from the Marshall Scholarship, Nyikos has earned a Palmetto Fellowship, a National Merit Scholarship, a Magellan Fellowship to study in Budapest, and an Honors College Undergraduate Research Grant to help fund her research interests.

“I am so grateful for the tremendous support from the faculty, plus funding for my research,” she said. USC President Harris Pastides has nothing but praise for Nyikos, as do her professors.

“She will, I have absolutely no doubt, succeed with incandescent brilliance,” Gwara said.

Nyikos said the Marshall award will enable her to pursue her career goal of teaching, research and performance.