Book Review: How To Listen To Great Music

How To Listen To Great Music:  A Guide To Its History, Culture, And Heart, by Robert Greenberg

As someone who has enjoyed several of the author’s Great Courses on classical music [1], there is obviously much to enjoy here.  While I do not agree with everything in this course (more on that shortly), the author is obviously both knowledgeable and passionate about concert music and seeks to inspire in the reader the same degree of passion for the repertoire of the Western music tradition.  It should be noted that this course is a condensed version of the author’s 48-lesson course on how to listen to and enjoy great music, which is itself an abbreviated and abridged form of the author’s usual music appreciation courses, which are likely a great deal more extensive in terms of the music they cover in both breadth and depth.  By and large I find much to agree with concerning the author’s broad appreciation, but I must admit that I have a hard time appreciating the atonal music that the author closes with, and find that the demented culture of the West in the period after World War I has created a crisis of legitimacy in the Western music tradition that has cut off contemporary composers from an appreciative mass audience as was the case for hundreds of years.

The 300 pages of this book are divided into 33 short chapters that cover western music from its beginnings to the early part of the 20th century.  Beginning with a discussion on the importance of understanding and listening to music (1), the author talks about his mad dash through the roots of Western music (2) and the music of the Medieval church (3) as well as some music theory and terminology (4).  The author discusses the Baroque paradox of exuberance and intellectual control (5), the rise of instrumental music (6), national styles (7), fugues (8), and Baroque opera seria (9) as well as oratorios and cantatas (10).  The author talks about baroque genres (11, 12), the enlightenment (13), classical era form and genre (14, 15, 16, 17, 18), and opera (19).  There are discussions of Beethoven (20, 21), the Romantic movement (22), structural issues (23) and program symphonies (24), and the rise of Italian opera (25, 26), as well as nationalism in Germany, Central Europe, and Russia (27, 28, 29).  Finally, the author concludes this book with a discussion of modern music (30), the rise of new music (31) in the early 20th century, as well as Stravinsky (32) and Schoenberg (33) before closing with some suggestions for the reader to listen to from the classical repertoire.

So long as the reader recognizes that this is a very superficial and brief discussion of the Western classical music tradition, this book can be greatly enjoyed for the author’s obvious erudition and enthusiasm.  To be sure, there are plenty of areas where the author could and should have expanded his discussion–the American classical tradition, as well as that of Scandinavia and the Czechs, and even some discussion of the classical traditions outside of the West would have been fertile areas for discussion.  That said, this is a book that is honest about the fact that it is very incomplete and partial in its scope, and one that should be supplemented by other volumes for those who want a deeper look into classical music.  Those readers who want a generally tolerant view of the wide scope of Western opera, instrumental, and religious music will find much to appreciate here, though, and are recommended to listen to the author’s Great Course on the same subject as well, which is helpfully advertised at the end of this volume.  To be sure, there is a lot that is left out, but what is included will whet an appetite for more than the author has time or space to discuss here.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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