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The consideration of context definitely seems to add another dimension to the experience of a work of art. Along with finding letters and articles produced by artists contemporary to the period, how would you advise that curious, art-appreciate commonfolk seek reliable information (with limited resources, of course) to achieve a better understanding relating to this aspect of art? Are there cheap, reliabe resources available for students' research that you could recommend?

Are there cheap, reliabe resources available for students' research that you could recommend?

A great question. I recommend starting with some of the excellent work from the field of musicology, much of it fairly recent: Jan Swafford's bios of either Brahms or Ives; Richard Crawford's stunning America's Musical Life: A History; works by Joseph Horowitz or Charles Rosen; Nyman's Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond; etc. I find that understanding the time and place(s) in which a composer lived, as well as gaining a sense of them as real people, are tremendously helpful in attempting to understand context in this sense.

Also, I find another great approach is to ask 'what is new?' or 'what is unique?' about a particular piece or composer. What was it, exactly, about Beethoven's music that differentiated it so from that of Mozart or Haydn? Indeed, why--specifically--is he considered 'revolutionary'? (Charles Rosen's The Classical Style would be a great place to start with these, or even better would be the Beethoven Symphony cycle recorded by John Eliot Gardiner, which includes a disc with him talking about exactly these questions for 25 minutes or so...)

Answering those kinds of questions will help you better understand a work's context, I think--really, for me, it's about knowing the composer's work (and non-musicians can easily understand the important major elements of any composer's work, even the "hard" ones), gaining a sense of the composer as a person, and understanding the specific time and place in which he/she lived (France in 1910 was very different from Germany in 1936, which was very different from New York in 1924, for instance). It's an ongoing voyage of discovery, even for a specialist--one of the reasons I love the art form of music so dearly.

For two brief posts on context by Josh Kosman, SF music critic, click here and here

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