modes of listening 8: the contextual mode

As you present your ticket to enter the concert hall, an usher hands you a printed program. In addition to the musical events of the evening and information about the performers, chances are the program will include short essays about the music. These essays will explain the historical and sociological context of the music and the composer(s). You might read things like this:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing and performing at age 5.

George Gershwin built his reputation as a Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composer, before composing his first significant classical work, Rhapsody In Blue, in 1924.

After being awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Sydney, the University of Tartu, the University of Durham, the University of St. Andrews, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and University of Oxford, Arvo Pärt won the Ratzinger Prize, said to be the Nobel Prize in theology.

Dimitri Shostakovich was reported to have composed the 1940 Leningrad Symphony (No. 7) in resistance to Nazi totalitarianism and oppression. But after various fearsome run-ins with Josef Stalin, the symphony may well represent a protest against Stalinist totalitarianism as well.

This sort of narrative information can guide listening towards the expressive elements in the music (emotional, textural, cultural, thematic, etc.) and point towards other modes of listening. As such, the contextual mode is, paradoxically, extra-musical, in that one can appreciate Shostakovitch’s work as a historical and cultural artifact without actually hearing the music, but simply reading the story of its conception, performance, and social responses. This link to a Carnegie Hall performance the the Leningrad gives you a music and a discussion of the context.

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