Senior Essay Showcase: Ms. Peach (A19)

March 22, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Ms. Peach wrote her senior essay on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Elizabeth Holt (Peach) is an Eastport, Maryland native. Her senior essay, one of few music essays written this year, is entitled “Two is Strong where One is Feeble: an exploration of love, commitment and community in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.”

When and why did you decide you were going to do your essay on Porgy and Bess?

Last year. I wasn’t sure that it would be approved [because it’s not on the St. John’s Program], but I definitely knew that I loved the piece and that I wanted to do a music essay. I fell in love with it a long time ago, seeing my grandmother do Porgy and Bess on the stage when I was 8. That’s when I started to love opera. It’s just really beautiful, and I wanted to know more about it.

It’s a controversial work. Some parts of the African American community don’t like it, but my family isn’t part of that. We think it’s beautiful. Even though it’s written by a white man about black people, it created a lot of opportunities for artists. It uses Ebonics and stereotypes—without the music, you wouldn’t want to read it. But when you hear the music, it’s truly beautiful.

What was your central topic?

The ending is frustrating. [Porgy and Bess] have some struggles in their love life, and Bess ends up leaving. We’re convinced that she’s going to stay with him, and we’re really happy about all this positive development, but then she leaves, which is upsetting. And then Porgy leaves, and it just ends there. They just sing them out—“There he goes!”—and [the audience] is left thinking ‘What is this?’

It was very frustrating to me, and I wanted to see if the opera [indicated] that they get back together, if we’re supposed to have that closure already. Had they already made the commitment to each other? Was that enough for us to say they get together in the end? And [I wanted to see] how the community affects their love for one another, because I think the main theme of the opera is community.

Did you draw any conclusions? How? 

Yes. I think they do, or at least it’s very positive. There’s no closure as we would expect it because of its setting. It would be disingenuous to have a rom-com ending. That’s not going to happen in this place. Bess’s personal development is not something to be condensed into that timeframe. This community has these long-term issues that are embodied by Bess, and it can’t just sign off like that because they’re not solved.

There’s no full score of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess unless you buy it or get the rights to it, which would be crazy, so it was a lot of listening. There are a lot of motifs. Because [Gershwin] is a songwriter mainly and this was towards the end of his life and a step out of that—making musicals, that sort of thing—it’s like he’s given each character their own motif. I was hearing the different ways they pop up and trying to [record] them, like ‘Here’s that, but with more tension.’ I couldn’t see everything because it was a condensed score, so I couldn’t see what was playing what. I’d have to [hear it and say] ‘That’s an oboe. I think we’ve modulated three times. This keeps coming up. I think that’s relating to page 234. Flip there.’ I had to leave notes for myself.

I would spend hours doing one facet of my essay. One day I’d sit there and underline motifs, the next time I’d just look at the stage directions, or I’d spend a whole day organizing one part, [figuring out] which songs I want to use to prove a point.

Did you have a background in music before St. John’s?

Yes. I’ve been singing since I don’t know how long. I joined my first chorus when I was in third grade, and I’ve stayed in since then. I started flute in fifth grade and kept up with that until recently. A lot of [members of] my family are music teachers or professional musicians. I knew that music would be my strength, and why not use that for my senior essay? I wasn’t going to talk about Kant.

What was your writing process like?

I thought I was going slower than other people for a while, to be honest with you. I actually wasn’t, but music takes longer in some ways. There’s a lot of data collection where you’re just filtering through the music. I’ve definitely felt overwhelmed. It is a whole opera, it’s thick, and this is the condensed score. I had to pick and choose what’s important. It feels infinite, how many times you can divide music up. But I realized that I was actually at the same pace as other people, it was just in form of notes.

I have to be hyper-focused. Bringing that together took a lot of long nights being at the 24-hour-diner in town. I made friends, like ‘Yes, it’s me again, here for coffee and some sweets, eat my stress away!’ But once I started writing, I realized that I could write forever. I still have a lot of ideas.

Did the music get stuck in your head?

Oh, yeah. You can’t get it out. It was constant.

In terms of the Program, what was helpful to you when you were composing your essay? Which authors or texts were influential?

I was definitely thinking about [Aristotle’s] Poetics. I was trying to figure out whether [Porgy and Bess] was a comedy or a tragedy. And I definitely used Zuckerkandl. I’m used to reading music and some parts of music theory, but I had to brush up on chords—even though it couldn’t help me with jazz chords, which is a whole different thing.

[Mozart’s] Don Giovanni’s on the Program, and that really helped me. I took that precept specifically because I knew I wanted to write a music paper, and I did a precept last year on [Mozart’s] The Marriage of Figaro. So all of that sitting in classroom, discussing music in a small group was really helpful.

Why do you think so few seniors write music essays?

It’s a little bit daunting. Philosophy is also daunting, but we spend a lot more time doing daunting philosophical texts. We have a music course, but by the time you’re a senior, if you haven’t been taking the precepts, you forget how much you’ve learned and how much you can do.

Are you nervous about your oral [exam]?

I’m excited. The most stressful part is having people there, [especially] my family. I’ve been telling them about this for four years. Hopefully they won’t know what I’m talking about, but it’s music, so they will.