How to Listen to Great Music, by Robert Greenberg
Whether you’re listening in a concert hall or on your iPod, concert music has the power to move you. The right knowledge can deepen the ability of this music to edify, enlighten, and stir the soul. In How to Listen to Great Music, Professor Robert Greenberg, a composer and music historian, presents a comprehensive, accessible guide to how music has mirrored Western history, that will transform the experience of listening for novice and long-time listeners alike. You will learn how to listen for key elements in different genres of music — from madrigals to minuets and from sonatas to symphonies — along with the enthralling history of great music from ancient Greece to the 20th century. You’ll get answers to such questions as Why was Beethoven so important? How did the Enlightenment change music? And what’s so great about opera anyway? How to Listen to Great Music will let you finally hear what you’ve been missing.
Western music, for the last one thousand years, has been marked by almost constant stylistic change. Expressively, constructively, and instrumentally different musical styles mirror the vastly different historical environments in which they were created.
Western music has exhibited this almost constant change because of the intrusion of ego: the ego of the composer. The concept of the composer as someone who creates, assembles, and revises musical materials was born roughly a thousand years ago, during the High Middle Ages. It was about seven hundred years ago that composers actually began to sign their work and thus take personal credit for their music.
Let us consider what that means.
When we attach our names to something, we are saying to the world, “This is mine. It represents who I am, what I feel, what I know, what I think. And I’m proud of it!” (Contrast this with the music of the early Church, which was, in the minds of its creators, inspired by God for God.)
When we attach our names to something, we are acknowledging, to some degree, that it reflects both who we are as individuals and something of our life experiences. Because each of us is different, and because we live in a constantly changing world, the nature of the music with which we express ourselves will inevitably change.
As such, over the last thousand years, the very nature of expressive content has changed.
Today, if we ask someone, “What should be expressed in art?” that person will likely expound — as I would, incidentally — that art should somehow express feeling. For the last two hundred years or so, much of (most!) Western art has been characterized by something of a fetish for individual feelings. At another time in history, though, personal feelings were not high on the expressive priority list; God and religion were the focal point of musical expression. At other times, pure intellect and intellectual control were considered of highest expressive merit; at still others, artistic restraint and good taste. What is considered expressively relevant has and will change from era to era.
The rate of stylistic change in Western music has increased as the rate of change in Western society has increased. As we will observe, historical periods become shorter and shorter as we move toward the present (and we will periodize, much as we bemoan the inaccuracy of period dates).
All of this is important for understanding and listening to music for a couple of reasons. First, it helps to explain why there is such a dazzling variety of Western music to begin with. Second, by understanding the historical context reflected by the music, it becomes possible to comprehend the style, that is, the compositional and expressive substance of the music. By understanding the historical context, we can better understand and “hear” the music.
We would do well to avoid the notion that art is linear, and that, somehow, it just keeps getting better as we go along. Certainly, art — and for us, music — gets different as it goes along. Just as, certainly, the musical language itself — that is, the actual materials available to composers — has grown as we’ve moved toward the present day.
However, unlike science, technology, and medicine, this doesn’t mean that music has gotten “better.” Is Claudio Monteverdi’s music better than that of Josquin des Prez; is Bach’s better than Monteverdi’s; Mozart’s better than Bach’s; Beethoven’s better than Mozart’s; Brahms’s, Mahler’s, Debussy’s, Stravinsky’s, and Schoenberg’s better than that which came before? Obviously not.
There is a reason why we turn to the paintings of Vermeer, the sculptures of Michelangelo, and the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name just a few, in search of truth and edification, and it has nothing to do with nostalgia for the past. Great art is timeless, and it speaks to us, directly and relevantly, across time.
From an expressive point of view, music history is best conceived in terms of grand cycles. For example, ideas espoused by the ancient Greeks regarding the expressive power of music — ideas we will discuss in just a moment — cycled back to the forefront of Western musical thought about six hundred years ago. The essentially humanistic Greek ideal of music remains our ideal to the present day. But at some point in the near or distant future another vision of music, perhaps as essentially a form of ritual, will cycle back to the forefront of our cultural consciousness. Only time will tell.
The above is an excerpt from the book How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart by Robert Greenberg. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © Courtesy of Plume Books
About the Author
Robert Greenberg, author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart, is a speaker, pianist, and music historian. He has served on the faculties of UC Berkeley, California State University East Bay, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was chairman of the Department of Music History and Literature and director of the Adult Extension Division. He is currently music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and also serves as the resident composer and music historian to NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. Since 1993, he has recorded over 550 lectures for The Great Courses.
Founded in 1990, The Great Courses produces DVD and audio recordings of courses by top university professors in the country, which are sold through direct marketing. It is a nine-figure-a-year business and they distribute forty-eight million catalogs annually. They offer more than four hundred courses on topics including business and economics; fine arts and music; ancient, medieval, and modern history; literature and English language; philosophy and intellectual history; religion; social sciences; and science and mathematics.
Follow Front Row Lit on Twitter @frontrowlit
Check out the latest from Front Row Monthly magazine at www.frontrowmonthly.com