Great Courses: How To Listen To And Understand Great Music: Part VI, taught by Professor Greenberg
It would be unfair to be too hard on Professor Greenberg for the way in which this six-part sampling of the music of the Western concert music tradition ends. I knew going into this course, based on my own perspective and viewpoint, that I would not particularly enjoy the trends of 20th century orchestral music, and so it is no great surprise that I did not like them. The instructor certainly wants the listener of this course to spend the time to acquire a taste for the brokenness and dissonance of 20th century music, which he openly admits is an acquired taste and not one that a lot of people have. He notes that the extremism of 20th century music springs from composers’ desires to move beyond existing trends, and to speak to disturbing and dissonant realities, including images of primitive and heathen religion and sexuality, but that is precisely why I do not like 20th century musical and artistic trends as a general rule in the first place–because they speak to a rebarbarization of the West that I am hostile towards and implacably opposed to. So why would I like this?
The last eight lectures of this course begin with a two-part series of lectures that seeks to introduce the listeners to the concert overture of the romantic period that was one of the characteristic ways that romantic composers who often lacked technical skills at music theory sought to express their ideas about program music as well as their own personal musical approaches (41, 42). This leads into a discussion of the romantic nationalism by which Europe’s oppressed peoples were represented by composers who sought to bring their folk music and identity to wider attention or, like Brahms, indulged their own exotic tastes (43). An entire lecture then follows on the Russian nationalism of the last half of the 19th century and the composers who drew on Russian folk traditions to create a distinctive approach (44). Finally, we come to the introduction of the modernist movement of the 20th century (45), the moment I had been dreading for a while. The course then ends with three discussions on the search for a new musical language by three early 20th century composers, where Debussy shows the French modernist tradition and the use of tamber as a major element of musical language in the absence of much development (46), Stravinsky shows a love of dissonance and percussion in the pursuit of primitive sounds (47), and Schönberg seeks in atonal dissonance freedom from the patterns and expectations that hindered his search for polyphonic expression.
It must be readily admitted that this music is not all bad, even if the lives of the composers were often so dissonant with godly morality that Western civilization may have been better served if biblical law and its approach to penology had been enforced upon the creative class of the late 19th and early 20th century, to say nothing of our own contemporary creative class. That said, there is a lot to enjoy in the romantic music and especially in the nationalist music of the 19th century, where self-expression and the desire to make one’s identity known and appreciated, or to point out what aspects of other cultures one appreciated, was such a common aspect of high art. My own views of nationalism and cultural appropriation allow me to appreciate a fair amount of the first half of these lectures, but as the lectures come to a close the music is more and more painful and unpleasant to listen to, as the horrors of 20th century life become presaged by its horrible musical and cultural trends, which continue to our present day and predict future horrors.