Books, Classical Music Stories, Music

High Schoolers Tackle The Great Gatsby With Classical Music

photo_16696_0This week I had the amazing opportunity to visit a high school English class and do a combined literary and musical activity with them.  They had recently finished reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” for class, so I brought in a piece for them to explore in relation to that book.

The piece I chose to play was the first movement of Ligeti’s Cello Sonata (Dialogo).  Before I played it, we made a list on the board of many of the characters from the book.  Then I simply told the students to imagine the music as a sort of movie score as they listened–who might the characters be? What might they be doing?

After playing the music all the way through  (it’s about 4 minutes long), I asked them for reactions.  It started out a little slow, but then things really got rolling.  One student broke the ice by saying he imagined the first chords to be the green light pulsing at the end of Daisy’s dock and that what followed was Gatsby watching that light and thinking about her.  Other students actually said they had the same idea.

Here are some other characters and events some of the students imagined:

  1. Gatsby asking Nick to swim in his pool followed by Gatsby’s death and Nick’s reaction to it all at the funeral.
  2. Wilson finding out about Gatsby’s supposed hand in his wife’s death and preparing the gun that would kill him.
  3. Gatsby and Daisy meeting for the first time at Nick’s house.
  4. Daisy reading Gatsby’s letter after it was too late to take him back.

It was really amazing to hear all of their creative ideas! We barely scratched the surface of this 4 minute piece in the 30 minutes I had with them.

One question I only somewhat rhetorically asked them was how people could imagine such different things in the same piece? What is it that makes Gatsby’s death and Gatsby meeting Daisy potentially map onto the same piece??? The potential symbolism and analytical implications are really exciting to me.  The first thing that comes to mind is that their meeting is the moment when Gatsby’s death becomes imminent.  Is Daisy directly responsible for his murder, then? She did let him take the fall when in fact it was she driving the car that killed Myrtle.  But is she responsible on another level because of her debilitating influence over Gatsby? Is that even her fault at all? There’s a lot that could be said here, but for now the whole comparison is certainly food for thought…

In any case, I ended our discussion by playing the entire piece for them again and asking them to think about how it ended.  Afterwards, I asked whether they thought it ended with hope or hopelessness.  The overall consensus was that it ended in hopelessness, which honestly I had not exactly expected.  When I was listening through, I could hear how the more hopeful and yearning lines combine with the more hopeless, lower lines and felt that its relatively happy final chord gave it a glimmer of hope.  But now I can also hear what the students described.  One person actually said that it sounded as though the piece didn’t really end, but was looking ahead to something else.  There is, in fact, a second movement to the piece…

In any case, here is the first movement:

Does one of the students’ interpretations particularly resonate with you? What do you think about the whole idea of using classical music to explore literature? Let me know in the comments!

19 thoughts on “High Schoolers Tackle The Great Gatsby With Classical Music”

  1. I think that’s an awesome idea! I was a Creative Writing major in college and took a TON of literature classes as a result and I think it would added a really interesting and much more engaging level to some of the classes if my professors had done what you did.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi,
    I’ve taught F Scott Fitzgerald. However, I never like the great Gatsby, and I still don’t see the appeal. I think my favorite book of his was Tender in the Night.
    Congratulations on being Danny Ray’s featured blogger. I was his featured blogger too.
    Maybe you can check out my blog if you needed a blogging tip or two. That’s what I write about.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I haven’t read that one but now I want to! I read This Side of Paradise and liked The Great Gatsby better, but that could have been for a number of reasons. And thank you! I’m always looking for ways to improve my blog so I will definitely check it out. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great choice of piece for “Gatsby”! The depth and sonority of the cello speaks to the complexity of Fitzgerald’s writing, and Ligeti’s use of dissonance gives it just the right theme.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I read The Great Gatsby at the beginning of this school year, and how I wish I had this opportunity! I didn’t really understand the book the first time I read it, so while I definitely think it’s time for a re-read, reimagining classical music to it is so ingenious.

    That being said, I am in love with the premise of your blog! Thank you so much for liking my post so that I could find your blog :). You have the most interesting concepts for posts and I’ve never found someone who was actually able to make classical music so appealing. I’m a violinist and I’ve always loved classical music but this will definitely be a way for me to expand my knowledge. Looking forward to your upcoming content!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!! It’s really exciting to get this kind of feedback. I really do want to show how classical music doesn’t have to be this unapproachable thing! Thanks again for your kind comment and I hope you enjoy the blog. 🙂


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