Several years ago I stopped listening to NPR decided to use my commute time to learn things I was interested in and The Teaching Company Great Courses are excellent for that. For 2019, I focused primarily on one subject: music, but I started it with something a little harder…
The course Native Peoples of North America was an expansive coverage by Professor Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D. from before European invasion through modern day. I had to take breaks through January and part of February because it is not a happy topic. England, France, Spain, and the eventual United States were brutally treacherous in their dealings with the First People.
Yes, there were triumphs, but over the course of the last 500+ years, there was far more heartbreaking tragedy, genocide, forced relocation, marginalization, massacres, wars, lying treaty-breaking on the part of the United States.
After that sobering lecture series, I turned to a series of ten Great Masters, Their Lives and Music. Dr, Robert Greenberg was my teacher for the remainder of the year and into 202. He’s from New Jersey, and brings personality, liveliness, and an incredible breadth of musical knowledge to The Teaching Company. From the comments I’ve seen on a few sites, some people can’t take him; I think he’s great. So, not in the order I listened to them, because I can’t remember! Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Robert and Clara Schumann. Each of the covers below links to the Great Course.
Each series is eight 45 minute lectures and Greenberg talks about the music of the time, the history of the time, and the impact the various selected Masters had on the repertoire.
Haydn is the father of classical music – and make no mistake, “classical” is a period of concert music, not the colloquial attribution! He is largely responsible for the classical era symphony form. And he was quite prolific. But then, having worked for the same royal family for 29 years, churning out new pieces every week, he sort of had to be. His string quartets are the gold standard. Mozart is Mozart, and peerless, a life cut short. He was also quite ribald. Prodigy of prodigies, he definitely made good on his potential. Beethoven, well, he stands alone between the Classical and Romantic periods. Innovative, fortunate that the piano had developed in order to handle his hammering drive, his style is distinctive. I learned how Robert Schumann could compose musical portraits of people, novel to me and quite enlightening; Clara was a virtuoso on her own merit and lived long after Robert’s insanity from syphilis killed him, also too young. Brahms was an enigma, having destroyed so much of his own work to retain privacy, but he is one of the three Bs, and beloved by pianists today. Liszt is famous as a performer, and he was the first to elevate solo piano to the artform it could be. Mahler, superb conductor and composer, his works were of a highly expressionist nature. Of the great Russians, I knew the least about Shostakovich, thus learned the most. A Soviet patriot, and closet dissident, he survived multiple purges and his symphonies told dual stories – one that would pacify Stalin, and another that would portray the heroism of the rebellious arts. Tchaikovsky’s personal life was colorful and brought about his tragic death (so much of that in these great masters!) and he rose above his peers and Greenberg selects some gems that are rarely heard. I suppose most are familiar with Stravinsky’s Firebird, but wow, the man was probably the most diverse of all those surveyed, if not the most ever. Experimental and for me at times difficult to listen to and appreciate. I’ll come back to all of these again because I learned more about music the rest of the year and a second pass will undoubtedly teach me more.
After 80 lectures on ten Great Masters, I decided to stick with Dr. Greenberg and continued with How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (as it turned out, I stuck with him the rest of the year and into 2020!)
Magnificent comprehensive coverage of music history, forms and their development, terminology, composers, history beyond music, I learned a tremendous amount about the structures and compositions of symphonies, sonatas, quartets and quintets, concerti (and the correct pluralization of such!). The social influences of the times, the political influences, religious and financial influences; composers not covered in the Great Masters series and many that were – there is crossover but I don’t mind reinforcement. If you pick only one Great Course on music, pick this one. You’ll be rewarded many times over. And there is a companion book in case you want to enhance the experience, titled How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart. You’re welcome.
So, narrowing the focus of great music, I moved next to Greenberg’s The Symphony. From its 17th century beginnings to the full emergence of the symphony in its complete form under Haydn and Mozart, to Beethoven, Schubert and Berlioz blowing it up all over, Greenberg digs deep and broad, as much as he can in 24 lectures.
He then takes the listener on a journey through different national influences, France, Russia, Vienna, Scandinavia, America… Amazing stuff.
It seemed only logical to narrow thew focus even further with Greenberg’s Symphonies of Beethoven. Ah… more time to focus on the intricacies of a single composer! And yet… not enough time.
I really appreciate Greenberg’s breakdown of the different elements, themes, vernacular, ties to different parts. And I appreciate that I have a deeper appreciation when listening to the symphonies of not just Beethoven, but of every other composer on my music player.
I couldn’t explain why all these were chosen over others, but Greenberg does…and I still have a hard time understanding why, but I did learn more about compositions, style, technique, piano history, influences, and more; The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works.
Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Mussorgsky (I really need to dig into Pictures at an Exhibition – I know and have listened to the work, but am unfamiliar with the pictures it exhibits), and many more.
I ended the year barely starting How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera, continuing with it now, and after that? I have the operas of Verdi, Bach and the High Baroque (excited about that one…he’s not played much in last year’s survey except in the How to Understand series), Mozart’s chamber music, Great Masterworks, a series on the concerto, 30 greatest orchestral works, 20th century music, music as a mirror of history, even one on the fundamentals of music, which after all of that might just mean that much more!
Always learning…and so much to learn about just music! Someday I’ll get back to religion, history, culture, literature and all that other good stuff, but for now, I’m enjoying the hell out of learning music!