Inside the Classroom: “Music and the Place of Performance”
This spring I had the pleasure of teaching a seminar in the honors program for the first time. The class I designed, “Music and the Place of Performance,” attempted to formulate an alternative vision of the history of classical music—one seen through the eyes and accomplishments of famous performers. The history of western classical music has typically been a history of written (as opposed to oral) music, and as such, the historian’s attention has been drawn primarily to the composers who penned those works. A study of music history, for example, almost always places Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven at the center, delving into their fascinating biographies, and scouring their operas, symphonies, string quartets, and sonatas for meaning. In this class, however, we investigated the lives and careers of performers who performed and helped create this music such as Farinelli, the famous eighteenth-century castrato who starred in many of Handel’s operas; Paganini, who wrote his own music for the violin and stunned all of Europe with his virtuosic magic; and Glenn Gould, one of history’s finest interpreters of Bach and many others.
In addition to thinking and reading about historical figures, this class also investigated the life of contemporary musicians, exploring the challenges and rewards of classical performance today. To fully understand the musician’s perspective, we invited three guest speakers to discuss their lives and careers and to perform: Virginia Eskin, pianist, who played a number of works by Liszt; Nina Bishop Nunn, violinist, who performed excerpts from Bach’s treacherous unaccompanied sonatas; and Patrick Owen, cellist, who dazzled the class with his interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven. In addition, the class attended a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, witnessing first-hand a group of musicians working together in perfect harmony.
This fall, I will be teaching a different seminar, “Opera and Film / Film and Opera.” This class will explore the myriad ways that opera has been used in film, looking at operatic productions that have been translated into films, and investigating a variety of operatic excerpts that have served as background music. We will begin with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent film of Bizet’s Carmen, exploring the question of how opera—a genre that is founded on sound—can exist in a format that is inherently noiseless. The course will then move chronologically through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, exploring the marriage of opera and film through units such as “The opera star in film,” “The castrato on screen,” “Italian opera and pretty women,” and “Wagner’s filmic obsessions.” This class will be as interested in exploring the musical meaning and history of the operas under investigation as it will be in investigating the manner that the operas enfold themselves into and enhance the plots of various films. Students will conduct independent viewings of films and will attend one of the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD simulcasts in a local movie theater. If you have interest in film or opera, this seminar will be for you. Sign up!
-Hilary Poriss, Associate Professor, Music Department