Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

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The film Philadelphia and Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier: A Contextual Approach to Analytical Writing

Timothy A. Johnson, Ithaca College

In the movie Philadelphia (1993), as Tom Hanks’s character, Andy Beckett, reacts to and tries to describe the music playing on his stereo to his attorney, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, Andy is doing music analysis. Although he has no analytical skills or training, he intuits how the music in the aria, “La mamma morta”—from his favorite opera, Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier—moves him, and Andy’s simple declarations (“Oh, that single cello!”), facial reactions, and bodily motions reveal that he understands the music deeply, ultimately moving him to tears. His attempt to communicate his understanding of the music to someone else well represents what we ask of students when we assign analytical papers. The strength of his reactions to the music and his innate understanding of how the music shapes his emotional responses guide his description. Although Andy does not possess the vocabulary to communicate his musical understanding clearly, students in intermediate or advanced analysis courses do. This brief essay describes a paper assignment that I have employed in Junior-level Form and Analysis classes at Ithaca College. This assignment attempts to lead students in making insightful, specific, and detailed analytical observations about the aria, placing them into the context of both the opera and the film.

Although I have used this assignment at a more advanced level, it could be employed earlier, as soon as chromatic harmony has been covered. The assignment helps students understand the goals of analysis, gain the precision necessary for success in analytical writing, and develop their analytical writing skills. It also provides them with a meaningful writing experience that takes an interdisciplinary approach to their study of music theory. Although the assignment dictates that the focus be primarily on musical analysis, students must also put their analyses into the contexts of the libretto and the scene from the film in which the aria appears. For example, students may attempt to illuminate specific text-music relationships as well as broader themes touched upon by the role of this aria in the opera and the film, or parallels between the opera and the film.

To prepare the students for this assignment, I present my own analyses of a couple of art songs, typically Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht” and Schubert’s “Auf dem Flusse,” but other songs would serve the same purpose. I explain how the harmony, melody, motivic structure, texture, and other aspects (for example, key relationships and modulation techniques in the case of the Schubert) reflect and enhance the meaning of the texts. By modeling the expectations of the analytical assignment in my lectures, I demonstrate the goals of the assignment (though not the film-related aspects of it). I model the level of detail of the musical analysis as well as the importance of analysis for understanding the text. And I give firm examples of how specific and detailed analyses can provide insights into the meaning of song, both on the surface and at deeper levels.

Students may take a variety of approaches to this assignment, both in terms of their analytical focus and their interpretation of the film and the opera scene. The assignment leaves plenty of room for independent and creative thought. It provides a vehicle in which students must show why analysis matters, whereas in my experience too many students seem to wonder why it matters. The music, and especially Andy’s and Joe’s separate reactions to it in the film scene, enhances the audience’s understanding of the main characters in the film and occurs at a pivotal point in the narrative. Even the lighting and camera angles help to convey the aria’s effects on the development of the two characters. Analysis allows an opportunity for students to explain precisely how the music reflects the libretto and how the film scene reflects the music.

In addition to its tangible analytical, interdisciplinary, and contextual rewards, the assignment also offers intangible rewards. Since many students often feel like Joe, who is “not that familiar with opera,” this assignment allows such students to observe how operatic material can move a person to tears—and through this assignment, explain why. By using a scene from a popular and award-winning film, featuring well-known actors, this assignment also reaches many students through a genre with which they have strong familiarity. Although they likely will not know this particular film (made before most of them were born), movies continue to be a primary form of entertainment, both in theaters and via DVDs and streaming. Finally, by taking an interdisciplinary approach in the paper, students have an opportunity to consider their analytical studies in a broader context.

The full assignment appears in an appendix.

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This work is copyright 2013 Timothy A. Johnson and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.