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Music in The Great Gatsby and The Great Gatsby as Music

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Abstract:

This article focuses first on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of music in his novel, and second on John Harbison’s adaptation of the novel into opera. Popular songs act as commentary on the novel’s action, reflecting and counter-pointing it. The jazz played at Gatsby’s parties simultaneously invokes and represses sexuality, just as Gatsby acts on and represses sexual desire for the idealized Daisy. The music of the spheres is invoked as an idealized counterpoint to the sexualized jazz. The novel’s themes — love, yearning, betrayal, loss, violent death — are also opera’s perennial themes. John Harbison’s libretto is faithful to the novel in language, characters, and plot, though dialogue and scenes are shifted. The opera’s architectonic structure is built on paired scenes, the second of which is always more disturbed and dissonant. The structure of the opera’s plot thereby mirrors the structure of the overture, which musically foretells it. Because Nick is a character rather than the opera’s narrator, Harbison has composed a complex musical narrative to express the poetic qualities of the novel’s language as filtered through Nick’s narration. By focusing less on Nick, Harbison loses the thematic significance of Nick’s growth. But it is the mythic appeal of The Great Gatsby that makes it appropriate material for operatic treatment. Ordinary mortals like Nick cannot command the operatic stage in the way that a larger-than-life hero — The Great Gatsby — can.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2002

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