By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narration by: Professor Robert Greenberg
Learning a new language is a sadly neglected discipline in America. Because other languages (other than English) are not required in primary (kindergarten to 12th grade) schools, American college courses play catch-up to compete with the rest of the world. As one gets older, the likelihood of learning a new language is problematic if not impossible. An exception may be the language of music. “The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works” is a lecture series by Robert Greenberg that offers a spectacular introduction to the language of music that can be learned by all.
Though this audio book is 24 hours long, each chapter is an entertaining revelation. Greenberg intersperses music word definitions in reviewing orchestral works of twenty-two famous composers and artists of the 17th to 20th centuries. Each definition is vivified by an orchestral performance and an interpretation by Greenberg. Greenberg begins with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and ends with Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10”.
One does not have to be a classical music lover to appreciate and enjoy listening to Greenberg’s lectures. In truth, a classical music lover might be bored, or bogged down in disagreement, with Greenberg’s analysis or opinions. For the rest of us, Greenberg is an entertaining and erudite guide to the language of music.
Did you know that a ritornello is a fragmentary refrain while a rondo is a theme that recurs through the course of a performance? When a single soloist plays an instrument and then the orchestra tunes in, it is a solo concerto; when multiple soloist play and the orchestra comes in, it is a concerto grosso. This rudimentary information helps one understand structure in an orchestral performance.
An orchestral performance is designed to elicit thoughts and ideas in an audience’s mind. Listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or Debussy’s “La Mer”, one can hear spring springing and sea churning. In some examples, knowing something about the composer’s life offers insight to the emotions represented in an orchestral performance.
The tumultuous life of Tchaikovsky is a case in point. Tchaikovsky is a man out-of-place in 19th century Russia (and probably today) who married a woman to hide his homosexuality. The dissonance in his life informs his music. Some composers are inspired by mythical stories.
They translate those stories into music like Camille Saint-Saëns in “Danse Macabre”, a tone poem and mythical story about death that appears at midnight every Halloween.
Well known composers, their lives, and works are briefly dissected by Greenberg. There is Mozart’s precocity and his ability to create a performance at one sitting because of a “mind palace” capability that catalogues musical ideas in a way that allows him to write what he sees in his mind. Greenberg notes that Mozart hated sitting down to write music. It bored him to have to sit down and render a production when it was already clearly displayed in his mind.
Greenberg writes of Beethoven’s loss of hearing from an early bout of typhus and how his depression is overcome through music. Greenberg suggests that Beethoven reinvents himself. At the first performance of his “Ninth Symphony” in 1824, Beethoven is deaf. He is hyperactively moving his head, body, and arms over appreciation of the “Ninth Symphony” performance while unaware of the overwhelming applause from the audience that is behind him. It is also surprising to hear that the piano is a favored instrument of Beethoven when it is considered a lesser instrument of the orchestra. Greenberg explains that Beethoven pushed the piano to its limits with his music.
Greenberg touches on Aaron Copland and Appalachian Spring which is noted as a late comer to the classic symphonic tradition; partly because of a German bias against American musical talent, but also because of a nation still searching for its identity. Copland is born in America but studies music in Paris between 1917 and 1921. This is at the beginning of the Jazz age which is soon followed by the Great Depression. “Appalachian Spring” is a paean to the marriage of ballet and music more than a story about either Appalachia or the season of the year. In one sense it seems to denigrate some of what Greenberg writes about earlier orchestral works because it seems only slightly related to life and more related to musical structure. Even so, the structure of theme and variation, a significant part of the lecture series, are referred to by Greenberg.
The most political of the composers of which Greenberg writes is Dimitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer lives through the Stalinist Terror. Greenberg tells of Shostakovich’s denunciation by Stalin’s apparatchik and Shostakovich’s falsely confessed rehabilitation. The false confession allows Shostakovich to write “Symphony No. 10” that capsulizes citizen victimization by Russia during the Stalinist Terror. The Russian public understands the true meaning of the symphony. Their wild applause, along with Shostakovich’s denial of the symphony’s meaning, protect him from government reprisal.
In Greenberg’s last lecture, he makes a plea for new composers’ music to be performed. Greenberg implies the language of today’s composer needs to be heard. Their orchestral voices tell today’s stories. New music composition is viewed by Greenberg as the lifeblood of the orchestral art’s future.
There are many interesting notes about preferences, tempers, tragedies, and extraordinary abilities of composers in Greenberg’s lectures. The audio book format is perfect for this genre of art; particularly in the hands of an erudite professor. One cannot expect to be fluent in the language of music after finishing Greenberg’s lectures but it is a strong beginning.