In the worlds of painting and literature, it's easy to see where history and art intersect. In Picasso's Guernica or Tolstoy's War and Peace, it's evident how works of art mirror and participate in the life of their times, sometimes even playing roles in historical events. But what about music?
In Music as a Mirror of History, Great Courses favorite Professor Greenberg of San Francisco Performances returns with a fascinating and provocative premise: Despite the abstractness and the universality of music - and our habit of listening to it divorced from any historical context - music is a mirror of the historical setting in which it was created. Music carries a rich spectrum of social, cultural, historical, and philosophical information, all grounded in the life and experience of the composer - if you're aware of what you're listening to. In these 24 lectures, you'll explore how composers convey such explicit information, evoking specific states of mind and giving voice to communal emotions, all colored by their own personal experiences. Music lovers and history enthusiasts alike will be enthralled by this exploration of how momentous compositions have responded to - and inspired - pivotal events.
Ranging widely across the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, you witness historical moments such as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian-Ottoman conflict, the Hungarian nationalist movement, the movement for Italian unification, the economic ascent of the US, the Stalinist regime in the USSR, and World Wars I and II. Across the arc of the course, you'll see how these events were felt and expressed in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, and many others, including modern masters such as Janáček, Górecki, and Crumb, and you'll hear superlative musical excerpts in each lecture. Join us for an unparalleled look into the power and scope of musical art.
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Unique interdisciplinary music-history treatment
Greenberg's obvious command of both history and music, and the extensive research that informs his expertise. The interdisciplinary nature of the course is unique.
I'd suggest that Greenberg's "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" (which I've listened through three times over the years) is somewhat similar, with that title emphasizing music and bringing in history, and "Music as a Mirror" emphasizing history and bringing in music.
This question may be better suited for actual audiobooks rather than Great Courses. That said, a helpful pdf booklet does accompany this course, and while Greenberg seems to follow it closely (I looked at the booklet only after finishing the course), he adds plenty of vintage Greenberg comments and metaphors, and additional musical and historical material which isn't in the notes.
No, but this is not a criticism. This is not a book, per se, but a series of twenty-four lectures. Each lecture is entirely self-contained.
This course was interesting, and accomplished its purpose: "we’ll explore the ways in whichhistory inspired the creation of certain musical works—and how thoseworks interpreted and memorialized the history that inspired them" (p. 2 in the notes). Greenberg is clearly in his element(s) as he combines history and music in a most interesting interdisciplinary fashion.
I had purchased this course thinking that Greenberg would major a bit more on music as a mirror of philosophy -- that is, how music reflects the way of thinking that a composer embraces in the context of his larger culture, and how philosophical underpinnings contribute toward the music of a particular time and place differing from the music of another time and place. In actuality, Greenberg's "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" seemed to give more attention to that particular point than this course, which instead emphasizes the way that particular historical events influence particular composers and musical compositions. This is by no means a failing of the course; I was incorrect in my expectations, in that the course is "Music as a Mirror OF HISTORY", not "of Philosophy". Greenberg definitively demonstrates that many musical compositions are historically rooted, and often (as Greenberg emphasizes in the course) motivated by war (see p. 9 in the notes).
I learned a good deal of history in this course. Greenberg is working with historical vignettes, of course, but often "goes deep" in giving a quite extensive historical context -- not just the historical context of the time a piece was written, but the historical backdrop that brought things to where they were when a piece was written. Among the bits and pieces I picked up that were interesting to me: I didn't know that "Columbia" (from Christopher Columbus) was used as the poetic name for the United States; I was unaware of Beethoven's love-hate attitude (if I could put it that way) toward Napoleon, the history of La Marseillaise, the financial severity of the Great Depression, and the difficulty non-Russians have in understanding the Russian mind. Musically, I heard Chopin's Revolutionary Etude with new ears (long familiarity had dulled its impact) and now understand a bit better just what an "etude" is; I was thrilled to discover Copland's Third Symphony; I gained a more accurate understanding of the circumstances behind Handel's Water Music; I finally can put some content to Wagner's The Ring. I'm motivated to do some research on the following, among other things: the antisemitism of Richard Wagner, and just how late in United States history that antisemitic laws were still on the books; the connections between Wagner's The Ring and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; the history of Paris and of New Orleans; the African influence upon American music; Eleanor Roosevelt's role in encouraging musical progress during the Depression; Haydn as a Roman Catholic; the devastation of Poland by the Nazi regime; Dvorak as a "ringer" brought to the United States by Jeannette Meyer Thurber to found a distinctive American school of music. I was intrigued by Greenberg's discussion of the musical technique known as "pastiche," and would love to explore its intersection with the notion of intertextuality in literary works. I'm also motivated to listen to a number of the works which were excerpted or referred to in the course, such as Copland's Symphony No. 3 and Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. I list all of the above items to gesture at the broad reach of this course.
Greenberg is always an engaging lecturer. That said, the sometimes-lengthy sections of historical context did at times become a bit tedious and hard to follow. But Greenberg does an outstanding job in making a potentially dull subject much less dull.
The course notes accompanying the audio are excellent. The bibliography in the course notes is quite impressive, and even more remarkable is the extent to which Greenberg engages his sources. The bibliography is not just there for show.
I am a parent who is interested in providing musical education for my children. For others like me, who might consider supplementing their children's education with this course, I will note that this course does have a few instances of vulgarity (generally in quoted material) and sexual innuendo. The intended audience appears to be college and above.
- Charles J. Bumgardner