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The Boccaccio Project: Musical Storytelling in Response to a Global Pandemic

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This post was written by Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.

[Giovanni Boccaccio, half-length portrait]
In the December 2020 issue of the Music Educators Journal, a publication of the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME), my “Link to the Library” article featured the Boccaccio Project. Library of Congress Music Division curators developed the project, named for Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), author of the Decameron, a collection of 100 stories shared among a group of friends who self-isolated from society during a devastating plague in the mid-14th century. The Library commissioned ten pairs of composers and performers to write and perform brief solo works in response to their experiences during the global pandemic. Each new instrumental work is less than five minutes and is accompanied by information about its paired composer and performer. All of this content is now freely available for viewing on the Boccaccio Project’s website.

The article suggests that as a modern example of musical storytelling, the Boccaccio Project invites students, especially those interested in performing and writing music, to engage in all of the processes inherent to musical artistry: creating, performing, responding, and connecting. For music teachers, the Boccaccio Project’s cross-section of composers and performers, combined with the brief duration of performances, offers exciting opportunities for teaching and learning. Analyzing the recorded video performances as primary sources, combined with artists’ biographies and written reflections, can provide students with diverse models for conceiving and developing new artistic ideas into a work (Creating), interpreting and presenting artistic ideas and work (Performing), understanding and evaluating how creative decisions convey meaning (Responding), and personally connecting to the creative process and delivery (Connecting).

Drawings for the illustrations of Boccaccio’s Decamerone

While a single historic event—the global pandemic—inspired all ten works, the paired artists’ musical responses varied greatly, reflecting unique creative processes shaped by personal experience and collaboration. These solo instrumental performances feature the piano, violin, viola, cello, flute, and oboe.

Introduce students to the Boccaccio Project by playing the brief video (1:11). Afterward, invite students to reflect on their observations and connect to their own experiences during this historic pandemic. Ask: What personal reflections or historical connections might inspire you to create or perform music? What musical qualities would you seek in a collaborator for sharing your story?

The article offers teaching suggestions for helping students to explore musical storytelling through the Boccaccio Project. These include inviting students to compare two or more compositions written for the same instrument, such as flute or piano, and encouraging them to investigate the artists’ creative inspirations and processes by reading their accompanying biographies and written reflections.

The Boccaccio Project will become part of the Library’s historical record documenting the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Students may learn more about the Library’s overall efforts to collect materials, including COVID-19 inspired artworks, images, oral histories, digital content, and even geospatial data that will help people 100 years from now understand how this global crisis touched everything from science and health care to business to entertainment to education. Perhaps these materials will inspire students to embrace their dual roles as witnesses to history and storytellers: how will they remember COVID-19? And how might they express and document, whether through music or other artistic forms, its impact on their lives for future generations?

If you explored musical storytelling with your students through the Boccaccio Project after reading the article, tell us about your experience!

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