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.
"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
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.