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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music is misnamed. It really should be labeled: The structure and form of Western Music. I don't really fault Professor Greenberg for this: it's quite clear to him that "Great Music" is restricted to those composed by Dead White People. I'll admit to mostly being a music philistine: I hated my piano lessons as a kid, and rarely understood the point of Mozart. I labelled all instrumental-only music as "classical".

Well, Professor Greenberg taught me a lot:

  • "Classical" music is actually a misnomer. There's "Baroque", "Classical", "Romanticism", and "Modernism." These labels apply to various epochs roughly corresponding to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy. Each of these epochs had unique characteristics that were reflected in the music. I was actually surprised that I could learn this because at one point during the program Greenberg played a piece of music and asked the listener to guess what epoch it came from and I actually got it right.
  • Beethoven really does sound different from any composers before him. His music, unlike that which came before, actually does represent extra-musical content. I tested this by playing a Beethoven symphony to Bowen, who did promptly ask: "What does this music mean?" Which is not a question that usually comes up with other instrumental music.
  • Professor Greenberg is a fan of Opera. Despite his immense enthusiasm, I still can't stand it. Despite his picking what he thinks are great musical pieces to listen to, I'm afraid I agree with one of the characters in John Steakley's fabulous novel: "Opera is for vampires. The living prefer rock and roll."
  • Life during the middle ages was tough. One of the composers had 20 children, out of which only 2 survived to adult hood. Many of them died young (Mozart at 35), and even when they were alive had poor health and frequently the medical care hurt them. Greenberg did not shy from providing excellent coverage of the composers' lives, which made them far more interesting as people than I would have thought.
  • The piano technology got hugely better from the 1600s to the 1800s. That's why in Mozart's symphonies, whenever the piano played the rest of the orchestra had to pipe down: the piano simply wasn't loud enough to compete with the other instruments in the orchestra. By the time you got to the 1800s the concert grand could hold its own against the orchestra and the symphonies written then didn't have to pipe down the rest of the orchestra as much. I wished Greenberg covered more of this since it would have been interesting to see what other technological changes in instruments affected composition.
  • Dance music (waltzes, etc) is not considered "Great Music", so I don't ever have to listen to them even if I was a music snob.
Conclusions that Greenberg didn't mention but that I drew for myself:
  • The various forms of music (e.g., Sonata Form) were really designed for music that was written in a pre-recorded era. That's why, for instance, Sonata Expositions frequently feature repeats of the themes. In a pre-recording era, you weren't going to listen to a piece of music repeatedly on demand, so each musical piece would have to repeat its themes during the exposition so the audience could hold it in their heads. This practice doesn't stand up in recorded music, since if you were to listen to the pieces repeatedly (e.g., if you listened to any of the numbered symphonies more than once a week), the expositions quickly become boring and feels like the composer's condescending to your intelligence. Greenberg vehemently demands that repeats be played exactly as written (and there's definitely a purist approach where that's correct), but I can definitely see why these already long pieces can't compete with shorter musical forms (e.g., Rock & Roll), which evolved in an era where recorded music that can be (re)played on-demand is the norm.
  • Classical music was used as the catch-all for Western instrumental music forms because it was the pop music of the day. The middle class was starting to happen, which meant that regular people could become amateur musicians and learn to play well enough to demand easy-listening pieces.
  • The need to express individuality and originality drove composers from Beethoven onwards to slowly abandon the traditional forms of instrumental music. What makes most modern instrumental composers unbearable to most people (e.g., Schoenberg) was when composers completely abandoned tonality.
I learned a surprising amount over the 42-lecture listen. The biographies of Beethoven, Listz, Tchaikovsky, and other composers were fun and added a lot of life to people behind the music. There were several pieces that I'd never heard before that I made notes to hunt down to listen to, and of course, I discovered that I'm a Beethoven fan and not a Mozart fan.

Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that Great Music should be restricted to those instrumental pieces constructed in the past. Certainly for today's "repeated listening" environments, I think many popular music genres out-compete the so-called classics for good reason. Nevertheless, if you have the time, I'd definitely consider Professor Greenberg's lecture series well worth a listen.

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