Great Courses: How To Listen To And Understand Great Music: Part V, taught by Professor Robert Greenberg
I must admit I have some mixed feelings about this part of the course. Having enjoyed the first two thirds of the professor’s investigation of great music, we have finally come to the period after Beethoven, where the author spends a great deal of time discussing Romanticism and its effect on music. My feelings about this are mixed for a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that I do not enjoy the Romantic period of writing as much as I enjoy the Classical and Baroque periods that came before it. And a lot of that lack of enjoyment comes from the way that the composers of this period often failed to be very good at composing (they relied on their own subjective view of their genius to overcome poor music theory and education and understanding of the genres they were working in) and that they began to neglect the contract that exists between composers and audiences concerning the content and form of instrumental music. Also, this book has a lot of opera in it and that is probably also not for the best as I am not a huge fan of opera.
Be that as it may, there was still some enjoyable music to be found in these eight discs, each of them one lecture, even if it was not to the high levels of previous parts of the series. If one is going to explore the music of the 19th century, there are few more enjoyable people to explore it with, I suppose. The first lecture introduces the audiences to Romanticism and what it means in a musical context as opposed to a literary context (although there are many similarities to be found) (33). After that the professor moves to discuss the formal challenges and solutions in early romantic music in the miniatures of German lieder as well as the short works of Chopin (34). Next, the program symphony of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is explored in two lectures (35, 36), demonstrating the power of its music while also its defects as a symphony. The rest of the lectures are focused on opera, with a lecture devoted to 19th century Italian Bel Canto opera (37) and another to the works of Giuseppe Verdi (38), as well as a lecture devoted to nationalism and experimentation within 19th century German opera (39) as well as the works of Richard Wagner in German opera (40).
This is one of those courses where if you are a big fan of romantic music and Italian and German opera of the 19th century, you will enjoy this course a lot more than I did. For me, this material was definitely a big step down from the first four parts of the course, which focused on beautiful music from the Middle Ages and beyond, and the fact that the course ends with a look at the music of the late 19th and early 20th century which I tend to view as far more problematic than the music that came before. Perhaps my musical tastes are far less avant garde than that of many people, especially those with an academic interest in music history, but all the same this particular course demonstrated that the romanticist turn of composers marked a decisive turn away from much of the aspects of instrumental music that were most popular with audiences and remain so. I would have preferred lectures that focused on more neo-classical composers or nationalist composers, whose music is certainly well worth appreciating and often based on folk traditions rather than on the demented imaginations of corrupt and decadent 19th century Europeans. But that’s just my own personal opinion.