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Doctoral Student Develops Groundbreaking Theory About Chopin

Research uncovers the famous composer's compositional strategies confirm his lifelong fascination with death and the impact it had on his music

Jessica Castleberry began playing piano at age seven, and by her 20s, she was on course for a performance and teaching career. But the long hours of solo practice made for a lonely life. She found a new passion in music history at the University of Northern Colorado, where she earned a master's degree. In UNC's Music D.A. – Music History and Literature program, she's made discoveries about classical musician Frédéric Chopin.

"Music history turned out to be the perfect choice because I love teaching at the collegiate level and analyzing music to discover how it creates meaning and functions in society and culture," Castleberry said. "No other doctoral program offered the mentorship or opportunities that UNC did."

One of the program's draws is preeminent Chopin scholar Jonathan Bellman, area head of academic studies in music and professor of Music History and Literature, who mentors Castleberry. Chopin (1810-1849), a composer and pianist in the Romantic period, has long fascinated Castleberry. Her studies have resulted in groundbreaking research into Chopin's approach to the scherzo genre.

Jessica Castleberry
Jessica Castleberry

"For a composer of Chopin's stature, it's embarrassing that no one has ever come up with a plausible theory for what his scherzi signified, what they were meant to communicate. Jessica has drawn on literary models and literature of the time. I know of no one else who's come up with anything resembling this theory," said Bellman.

In Castleberry's analyses, covered in papers, presentations and her master's thesis, she considered meaning, conceptual aspects and musical coding. She tackled whether Chopin meant his scherzi to be taken seriously because, in Italian, “scherzo” means joke or jest. Coming to a very different conclusion, she subsequently wrote in a paper that these works contained "serious expressions of death manifest in the living world."

"Chopin had tuberculosis, so he had to cope with the reality of an early death his entire life. In the literature, there are passing comments about this affecting his music but there's nothing within the analysis that goes deeply into the specific ways it infiltrated his compositions," Castleberry said.

She considered 19th-century artistic, literary and musical culture in her thesis, concluding that Chopin's compositional strategies provided musical evidence that "unequivocally confirmed the composer’s lifelong fascination with death and the impact it had on his music."

Castleberry presented "Death’s Last Laugh: Chopin’s Scherzi and the Danse Macabre" at the Rocky Mountain Regional American Musicological Society Conference in spring 2023, where she revealed gestures or codes in Chopin's work.

"Musical gestures often evoke something nonmusical using musical means. In codifying the macabre style, I identified a 19th-century obsession characterized by a fear of death and a sense of religious consolation. Looking to poetry and song, I researched this dance of death, oscillating between heaven, hell and earth. When I was writing 'Death’s Last Laugh,' I didn't know if I could make connections with the other scherzi. Dr. Bellman helped me approach the works in new ways, find the similarities between them, and confirm my theories. I couldn't have found a better mentor," she said.

She believes that if today's performers discussed gestures in their program notes, it would help the average listener grasp how music creates meaning.

“Death is a universal that all of us have to cope with, and there is a unifying beauty in experiencing the gamut of emotions surrounding death through a musical medium. It makes the music so much more than an abstract combination of sounds — it makes it real,” Castleberry said.

Her interest in helping others deepen their understanding lends itself to her work, both as an academic advisor in the College of Performing and Visual Arts Advising Center and as an instructor. Last year, she taught a music appreciation course at UNC; this year, she's an instructor of Music History for music majors.

"It's an incredible opportunity to teach music history from ancient Greece through the 21st century," she said.

Bellman said it's unusual for a graduate student to be an instructor of record, teaching music majors on that level.

"She's doing a terrific job at it. She's ambitious, thorough and a first-rate scholarly thinker," he said.

Next, Castleberry plans to publish her Chopin scherzo research in a journal article; eventually, she hopes to expand it into a book. After she graduates in June 2025, she will continue in academia by seeking a faculty position in music history.

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