This 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:
- Gatsby asking Nick to swim in his pool followed by Gatsby’s death and Nick’s reaction to it all at the funeral.
- Wilson finding out about Gatsby’s supposed hand in his wife’s death and preparing the gun that would kill him.
- Gatsby and Daisy meeting for the first time at Nick’s house.
- 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!