How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart by Robert Greenberg

How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and HeartHow to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart by Robert Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listen to The Teaching Company’s Great Courses on my commutes and with the exception of one on Native American Peoples to start this year, the rest have been concert music oriented. Greenberg has a ten artist series on the lives and music of great masters and the one I am finishing now, of the same title as this. It’s a 48 lecture companion course and I highly recommend listening to it in parallel to reading this (he has more…I have them queued). Greenberg is energetic, entertaining and eminently knowledgeable. I can’t begin to capture here even a fraction of the breadth he covers. There is depth, to be sure, but Greenberg masterfully surveys the monumental repertoire of modern western music from ancient Greece (yes! they’ve managed to reconstruct a couple of pieces from stele and pottery!) through medieval times through Baroque, Classical, Beethoven (per Greenberg, he sort of is in his own category), Romanticism and early 20th century modern composition.

He describes the language necessary to understand the music of the different periods in their context and he frames those periods with histories of the times and the composers he illustrates.

Art does not shape its time; rather, the times shape the artist, who then gives voice to his time in his own special way. To understand an artist’s world and something of the artist herself are the first requisite steps to understanding the artist’s work, its style, and its meaning.

I know somethings of music theory, but I’ll need to visit this book and the lectures again to absorb the language further. Tonality, motivity, timbre, phrasing, melody, themes, recitative, aria…this book describes the concepts well, but the reader also needs to be a listener. At the least, find the music selections Greenberg uses.

A few highlights:

We would do well to avoid the notion that art is linear, and that , somehow, it just keeps getting better as we go along. Certainly, art— and for us, music— gets different as it goes along. Just as, certainly , the musical language itself—that is, the actual materials available to composers —has grown as we’ve moved toward the present day.

This is important. As Surrealism is no better than Expressionism is no better than Impressionism is no better than purely representational art, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler are no better than Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt which are no better than Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. They are all great in their own ways and Greenberg tells us why.

Greenberg says that instrumental music is the ultimate abstract art. Plays or literature are bounded by the words in a language we understand. Painting is framed by two dimensions. Sculpture must occupy the three-dimensional space that contains it. The only dimension that instrumental music is contained by is time. And the Baroque era was when these concepts were developed:

An essential step in the emergence of instrumental music during the Baroque era was the development of instrumental musical forms.
[…]
One might think that when it comes to instrumental music, anything is possible; that a composer can sit down and just go with the inspirational flow and write whatever comes to mind. In actuality, the opposite is true: the abstract nature of instrumental music demands tremendous compositional discipline and rigor to create musical and expressive clarity and coherence in the absence of words.

“When we read a book or a poem, when we watch a play, we understand, at the very least, the language the author is using, and unless it’s Pynchon, Joyce, Gödel, or the lyrics to ‘I Am the Walrus,’ we usually understand what the writer is trying to say.” When we hear instrumental music, we don’t have the explicit language from the composer to describe what he/she is doing, or trying to convey. There might be a consensus, but it is still interpretation. Greenberg says “In vocal music, it’s the poetic structure of the words being set that almost invariably determines the form, the structure, of the piece of music that results.” And “But instrumental music has no a priori literary structure on which to base its form; in instrumental music, form is the result of compositional processes: repetition, variation, contrast, and development.”

To illustrate nuance in music, Greenberg gives an entertaining lengthy and exhilarating (intended) step by step, play by play, Harry Caray style accounting of a baseball double play, to which a foreign person unfamiliar with baseball asks, “What is double play?” Greenberg describes the structure (nine innings, two halves per inning, three outs per half) and intimates at the nuance (me: pitch, ball, hit, walk, strike, flyball, ball, hit by pitch, single, triple, fielder’s choice, ground rule double, etc…) Without a context, nuance cannot possibly be understood or appreciated. Without a sense of the large scale structure, we can’t understand the detail which makes things so interesting.

How many times have we heard a baseball announcer say, “I’ve been around this game for 40 years and I’ve never seen that happen!”? So, despite the formula nature of the structure, an infinity of nuance and detail can take place, but we can only understand it if we first understand the large scale context, the process, the form of the piece.

Well, Greenberg talks about form in all the eras. And so much more.

…music—the most abstract of all of the arts—is capable of transmitting an unbelievable amount of expressive, historical, allegorical, metaphorical, metaphysical, and even philosophical information to us, provided that our antennae are up and pointed in the right direction. That is why we listen, constantly, to music. Yes, to be entertained and amused, but even more, to be thrilled: to be enlightened, edified, reminded of our humanity, and to experience that white hot jolt of wordless inner truth that is the special province of musical expression.

Read this and go have a listen.

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