Thursday, January 30, 2014

For Friday: Gay's Mozart: A Life, Chapter 8, "The Classic"

Answer TWO of the following as a comment:

1. How did Mozart's last composition (left incomplete), the famous Requiem, contribute to the various myths about Mozart's death?  Why did it give rise to so much poetic speculation about how he lived and died?  Is there any truth to these myths, or do they cloud the real man and his music?

2. In Chapter 6, Gay writes that "it is vulgar to read music as a simple translation of its composer's moods or a literal response to private events" (118).  However, how might aspects of Mozart's last years color how we look at certain works and why he might have composed them (the last 3 symphonies, the Requiem, the last operas, etc.)?  If Mozart was a composer first and foremost, wouldn't his true autobiography be written in music?

3. Why did Mozart's reputation fall in the decades after his death, not to truly revive for close to 100 years?  How did many 19th century composers think of his music, and what caused later generations to re-evaluate his work?  How could a "classic" of our time be neglected in ages past? 

4. Having read Gay's biography of Mozart, why do you think we should know who he was (and what he did, thought, and felt) alongside his music?  Isn't his music enough?  Can't it get in the way of simply listening?  What argument can we make that an artist's life is worth knowing and can actually augment the music/art?  Specifically, how might you listen to his music differently knowing what you know? 

Monday, January 27, 2014

For Wednesday: Mozart: A Life, Chs.6-7

For Wednesday, be sure to read Chapter 6 "The Master" and Chapter 7 "The Dramatist".  The questions for these chapters are below--be sure to respond to at least 2 sets of questions by the time we finish the book on Friday.  

Answer TWO of the following...

1. In general, what makes Mozart a "master" among great composers?  What qualities or ideas does Gay single out in this chapter?  Which specific works?  Why wasn't Mozart generally hailed as master in his own day (aside from a few notable connoisseurs, such as Haydn, etc.)?  

2. On page 108, Gay quotes Mozart as writing "It is my wish and my gain honor, fame and money."  This doesn't always jive with our image as Mozart (or any artist) who writes because of God-given inspiration and wants to express the great truths of existence.  How did Mozart balance the need to make money with creating true art (which he was clearly able to do)?  You might also consider that in the end, he wasn't able to win the fame and money he truly wanted.  

3. Opera as a form offers up a difficult problem for its audience: which is more important, the words or the music?  Can a bad story be elevated by divine music?  Similarly, can a marvelous story survive routine accompaniment?  Mozart clearly felt that music won the day (as seen in his famous opera with a ridiculous plot, The Magic Flute), yet many operas have failed for lack of dramatic interest, despite the music.  In a more modern sense, can you like a song that has terrible lyrics—or a bad song that has amazing lyrics?  In short, which one might be the most important for creating ‘immortal’ art?  

4. Consider the topics of many Mozart operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte: why were they seen as outrageous or scandalous in their day?  What innovations do the stories themselves bring to opera and why might Mozart have been compelled to write music for them?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

For Friday: Mozart: A Life, Chs.4-5

Constanze Mozart, painted around their marriage
Discussion Questions for Gay’s Mozart: A Life: Chs 4-5, “The Freelance” and “The Beggar”

Answer TWO of the following in a developed response (at least a few sentences per question, using specific details/examples—see previous comments for examples if you’re unsure as to what constitutes a good response)

1. According to Gay’s biography, do you think Mozart was in love with Constanze?  How does he write about her to his father?  What other motives might have been behind this match—and should we suspect her motives as well? 

2. On page 91, we get the interesting comment that “In Mozart’s mind vanity and status anxiety were intertwined.”  What do you make of this interpretation of Mozart’s character?  Why was he “vain,” and what did “status” mean for him?  Why was he so desperate to live beyond his means, and how did this relate to his music?

3. On page 74, we get a list of a single Mozart concert in 1783 which features numerous works in several different genres.  Why did Mozart write so much music?  Can someone write so much and have it all be good (wouldn’t some of it have to be of lesser quality/inspiration)?  Do you feel Mozart composed more from psychological compulsion (he had to), aesthetic enjoyment (he wanted to), or practical necessity (he had debts)? 

4. In general, do you think Gay is sympathetic toward Mozart, the man?  While he clearly adores the composer, the portrait of the human being might be more ambiguous.  Should a biographer have affection—or admiration—for his subject, and do you think he should communicate this to the reader?  Or should he remain unbiased and objective? 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

For Wednesday: Mozart: A Life (Chs.1-3)

Discussion Questions for Gay’s Mozart: A Life, Chs.1-3 (pp.1-63)

Answer TWO of the following for Wednesday’s class.  Remember, don’t simply give me an answer, such as “yes, this is true,” or “the book says that Mozart was spoiled.”  Give me a response, which shows me an honest attempt to understand the work.  The responses should be at least a few sentences in length—no one word or one sentence responses will be accepted (that is, I'll ask you to try again).  

Even if you’re not sure what to say, try to explain why you’re not sure; an honest, detailed answer is always better than a short response that tries to cover your tracks.   I’m less interested in seeing you look ‘smart’ than in approaching the work in a humble, curious manner.

QUESTIONS (post responses to any TWO as a comment) 

1. Why is it important for Peter Gay to paint a portrait of Mozart’s father, Leopold?  What specific details does he include about Leopold’s life, philosophy, and habits that you feel is significant to understanding either the culture of the eighteenth century or Mozart himself? 

2. According to Gay, what made Mozart’s works (even his teenage ones) stand out from his contemporaries?  Why does a Symphony No. 29 or a Violin Concerto No.5 sound like Mozart when hundreds of other composers were churning out the same, often generic, works?

3. On Page 36-37, we get a lengthy (and explicit) excerpt from one of Mozart’s letters.  Obviously, Mozart would have never wanted anyone outside his intimate circle to read these letters.  What do you think are the ethics of biography: should a biographer expose his subject so nakedly—or should he hide certain details that were meant to be private, and don’t necessarily help us ‘read’ or appreciate his music?   In other words, should we be reading this? 

4. Why do you feel Mozart was unwilling to play the conventional role of an eighteenth-century servant?  His father saw no reason not to play the role, and indeed, no composer before him chafed at the bit as violently as Mozart.  Do you feel Mozart was influenced by Enlightenment philosophies of democracy and free will…or was he just a pig-headed, spoiled brat?  Cite a passage in the book to explain why you feel this way.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

For Wednesday: Respond with a Comment to the Picture Below (see questions)

Look carefully at the image above, a painting from the late 19th century.  In a “comment” below, tell me any of the following details you can guess from the painting and the way it is painted:

  • Who is this woman?
  • Why is she here?
  • What is she thinking?
  • How does the painter feel about her? 
  • Is she an important woman?  Or someone no one would notice?
  • What kind of woman is she—either her class/station in life, or her demeanor (is she nice; is she a bitch?)
  • What was the artist trying to say in general with a portrait like this?  In other words, why paint it?
NOTE: You don’t have to answer ALL of these questions—just whichever ones you think are most intriguing and interesting to you.  But try to really think about it—and consider why you think what you do.  Have fun with it and we’ll discuss it in class on Wednesday. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Welcome to the Course

Welcome to General Humanities II (not the best name for a course!), which I have subtitled, "Biography and Culture."  This course is designed to tell the story of Western culture from the Enlightenment to the late 20th century through the lives/works of 5 important artists: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jane Austen, Claude Monet, Langston Hughes, and Art Spiegelman.  Each one not only created art (whether novels, painting, music, or poetry) that has stood the test of time, but serves as a lens for examining their historical/cultural moment.  What I hope to do in this class is discover how the lives of each figure played into their works—and how their works, in return, became a record of how ordinary men and women lived, thought, and experienced the world around them.  The books in class are a mix of literature and biography, though each one is different enough to challenge how we look at each artist and period.  I hope you’ll enjoy seeing history through the eyes of ‘real’ people and trying to identify with their joys, frustrations, pains, and passions.   I look forward to reading, discussing, and learning from your own responses to these famous people and their revolutionary works.  

Be sure you have the following books, all of which are required for this course.  We'll start reading next week, in the order that they are listed below and on the syllabus (see course calendar for details).  

  • Gay, Mozart: A Life
  • Austen, Pride and Prejudice 
  • Heinrich, Monet
  • Hughes, Selected Poems
  • Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale