AMSGNY Meetings

Summary of the Panel Discussion--"Using Music to Teach Shakespeare; Using Shakespeare to Teach Music"

The fall meeting of the AMS Greater New York Chapter, which took place at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Lincoln Center, on October 26 2013, featured a panel discussion entitled “Using Music to Teach Shakespeare, Using Shakespeare to Teach Music.” The discussion formed part of a larger program of presentations around the topic “Music and Shakespeare.” Jonathan Waxman and Samantha Bassler gave brief remarks to begin the discussion, before members of the audience were invited to contribute their thoughts. Jeff Dailey served as moderator.

Jonathan Waxman’s remarks described the two types of music courses in which Shakespeare plays a role. The first is the music appreciation course, where Shakespeare appears through such works as Verdi’s Otello and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, selected as examples because it is assumed that most students have some familiarity with the plots of the pertinent Shakespeare plays. The second is the “music-and-literature” seminar or lecture class, which is often offered through English departments. Waxman went on to report that in studying course catalogs from various institutions, he found that courses in which Shakespeare and music are studied together tend to be courses with no pre-requisites, often first-year courses. While acknowledging that this might limit what the instructor is able to teach, Waxman pointed out that the absence of pre-requisites often means higher enrollments, which benefits academic departments. Waxman concluded his remarks by asking two separate questions of the audience. First, is the popularity of courses involving music and Shakespeare a sign of the Bard’s continued popularity? Second, how much musical content is there in classes taught from the perspective of English, rather than music, departments?

Samantha Bassler focused on pedagogical issues associated with bringing Shakespeare and music together. First, she pointed out that literary scholars have often not adequately addressed the issue of music in Shakespeare’s plays, though she acknowledged that a significant problem was posed by the uncertainty over what music was actually performed. Next, she presented some of the benefits that using Shakespeare might bring to the teaching of music in the early modern period. For example, it provides an opportunity to move away from the dominance of sacred music in early-music pedagogy (in Bassler’s words, to “humanize the Renaissance”). The music in Shakespeare’s plays might also be used to provoke broader philosophical questions about the relationship between music and literature, as well as historical questions about the role of music in the early modern period. Finally, the relationship of composers to Shakespeare’s plays provides excellent examples of reception history, especially in the nineteenth century.

Responding to Waxman’s and Bassler’s remarks, Jeff Dailey stressed the importance of considering the reverse situation of how music can help in the teaching of Shakespeare. Opera libretti based on Shakespeare could, for instance, provide guidance as to how plays could be shortened for pedagogical purposes. Recalling his own involvement in the Long Island Student Shakespeare Festival, Dailey also pointed out that operatic versions of Shakespeare’s plays could give teachers ideas about how to get more students involved on stage when putting on one of the plays.

Members of the audience brought up a range of issues. Ren Draya raised the topic of how music is used in films of Shakespeare’s plays—yet one more thing that students could be encouraged to study. In response, Bill Hettrick asked whether this music was generally historically accurate. Samantha Bassler added that, the issue of historical accuracy aside, the relative unfamiliarity of the early-music idiom was also a problem to contend with pedagogically. A different perspective was introduced by Sylvia Kahan, who encouraged the audience to take note of the wonderful opportunities the topic of “Shakespeare and Music” provides for music instructors to collaborate with colleagues in other departments. Towards the end of the discussion period, Ren Draya pointed out that many students, especially those in classes offered by English departments, may never have been exposed to opera or to classical music, and that courses which bring Shakespeare and music together could serve the purpose of broadening cultural horizons in this respect.

All in all, this panel discussion made clear the bi-directional nature of the interaction between music and Shakespeare’s plays in college-level pedagogy: the music helps teaching about the plays, just as the plays help teaching about the music. This characteristic was equally apparent from the paper presentations given during the chapter meeting as a whole—detailed exploration of the links between Shakespeare and music enhances our understanding of both.

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