Week Five Written Assignment (choose one option)
How important are biographical and historical elements in framing our appreciation of a musical work? In addition to the “program” of the Quartet for the End of Time, how has its historical context affected its reception? Does this context affect your perception of the music? How do the theoretical explanations of the chapter help your listening to this modern piece?
Examine the “topicality” of the West Side Story as it relates to American culture (particularly urban culture) of the 1950s. How effective is the transposition of the Romeo and Juliet story into an urban setting with rival gangs? Is the introduction of racial conflict (instead of two opposed families in the original play) a compelling change? How does Bernstein’s music help to create a new and distinctive setting for the action? Is he effective in bridging the gap of popular culture and classical music?
Leonard Bernstein said that his goal was to create the Great American Opera. Based on your understanding of West Side Story and Bernstein’s musical ideals, what musical and dramatic elements would characterize such an opera? Through what characteristics could such a piece be defined as definitively and proudly American? In your opinion, should West Side Story be defined as the Great American Opera? Why or why not?
The composer and conductor Pierre Boulez referred to The Rite of Spring as “the birth certificate of modernism.” Compare the musical language of this piece to one of the nineteenth-century works discussed earlier in the textbook (such as Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony or Wagner’s The Valkyrie). In what ways does The Rite of Spring contrast with the musical style of the Romantic era? How does this change reflect a twentieth-century worldview?
Discuss the “primitivist” element of the Rite of Spring in the context of modernism and the cosmopolitan environment of Paris. In what ways was and is the Rite a “modernist” work? What elements of Stravinsky’s musical style or Nijinsky’s choreography seem mechanistic or otherwise evocative of the modern age? What works would you consider to be modern today and why?