Great Courses: How To Listen To And Understand Great Music: Part IV, taught by Professor Robert Greenberg
At this point the course has moved beyond the halfway to the two-thirds mark, and it is striking to see Greenberg in his element as he passionately discusses the music of the classical era as well as Beethoven’s work, comment about his lack of time to discuss things in as much detail as he would like, and point to his other courses on opera appreciation as well as Beethoven’s own work. The author even demonstrates a striking degree of compassion for viola players in pointing out how they get a raw deal in the string orchestra because of the harmonic role that they play, which certainly wins the support of this viola player. And even if this section contains things I either know a good deal of already or have never had a great interest in, I found this selection of lectures to be a very enjoyable one and well worth celebrating. I was especially intrigued by the way that even the “naturalistic” opera of the classical era still relied on tropes from Italian low comic opera as a way of providing shorthand. The implications of this are quite intriguing.
The eight lectures of this particular part of the course cover a small period of time but manage to do it very well. We begin with the second part of the Sonata-Allegro Form (25), continuing from the previous part of the course. After that we have a discussion of how the symphony was music for every person because it was an arena classical version of the chamber music that was lovely but a bit fussy for mainstream audiences (26). After this comes a discussion of the classical era concerto (27) and its antecedents. Greenberg spends a lecture talking about the development of opera buffa (28) and the political implications of this opera in ancien regime France as well as providing some excellent insight into Mozart’s operatic ensembles (29) by looking at Don Giovanni. Finally, the last three lectures discuss the French revolution and introduce Beethoven (30) and focus on Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (31, 32). It must be admitted that if one had more time there is a lot more music from Beethoven that one would want to explore, but it is very worthwhile that even in this abridged discussion of music that there is enough time to discuss Beethoven’s creative approach and love of motives in his best-known symphony.
There were at least a couple of undercurrents in this particular series of lectures that I found particularly interesting and worthwhile. For one, understanding the cultural and political context of music can be very important, because when someone like Rousseau champions a piece of music, one can be sure there are ulterior motives involved. For another, I was struck by the way that music appreciation depends on a contract between the composer, musician(s), and audience. The musician promises to play the piece as written to the best of his or her ability, so as to transmit to the audience what the composer is seeking to communicate. Additionally, the composer and the audience agree that a given language of tones and notes is the way that the composer will convey some sort of message to the audience, and that the form itself will have some sort of meaning and importance as well. The audience can then appreciate the creativity of the composer and the skill of the musician(s) within the context of shared understanding of what they are all about. And when a composer violates the expectations of his (or her) audience, the resulting lack of appreciation can be serious, which is one reason why there are so few great composers anymore, and why there has been a great divide between audiences and composers in the period after the beginning of the 20th century.