How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Robert Greenberg

These are just notes to myself on an audio course I got from the library. Nothing about statistics or R here 🙂

I’ve spent the past few months listening to Robert Greenberg’s How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition as I walk to and from school. I’ve played classical music for years (in school bands and orchestras as well as at home), so I’d picked up a fair bit about its history, but I hoped this survey course would fill in some gaps.

Below are some notes-to-self, though my appetite for note-taking got weaker and eventually petered out halfway through the course. (Not because the course got boring—just because the semester got busy!)

Here’s a handy Youtube playlist with most of the pieces Greenberg covers.

1. Music as a Mirror
* It’s worth developing some technical jargon in order to speak precisely about music. For instance, “relatively disjunct” melodic lines are “spiky” or “jumpy” while relatively conjunct ones are smooth. Beethoven’s Ode To Joy is relatively conjunct, i.e. each note is close to the previous one, *except* for one jump (after the low note about 3/4 of the way through the tune), which gives that part of the melody all the more dramatic effect for being different from the rest of the melody line.
* Music of the ancient Greeks and their contemporaries was humanistic, expressive, appealing to the emotions. Then came the Middle Ages and the church restricted the uses and forms of music for many centuries. It was only as the Renaissance approached that composers began to sign their works (instead of being anonymous), and this allowed ego and fashion to enter the realm of music-composition and spur on change, which became faster and faster in the last few centuries, returning to the Greeks’ humanistic view of music. In many ways, music is a mirror of the time it was written.
* Music is a mirror on various scales, not just on the scale of centuries: Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, 4th movement starts with the sound of burps, hiccups, and flatulence—written while he went through a period of major gastrointestinal distress.

2. Sources—The Ancient World and the Early Church
* We think of ancient Rome and Egypt as being roughly at the same time—it’s all just “ancient history,” right? But if Julius Caesar seems like a distant legend at 2000 years ago, well, the Pyramids were build another 2000 years before him. Greenberg also mentions that Minoan civilization had rudimentary plumbing including flush toilets! Who knows how much sooner modern technology might have developed if they hadn’t been destroyed by a volcano around 1600 BCE.
* From this huge swath of “ancient history,” we have only found about 40 surviving pieces of music. Based on what has survived, we assume that most music of this time was monophonic. The two pieces that Greenberg plays are:
* “The Stasimon Chorus” from Euripides’ “Orestes”: reconstructed from surviving fragments, it was used in the ancient Greek play Orestes. The music is meant to heighten the emotional impact as the chorus pleads for the Furies to have mercy on Orestes. After a several-hundred-year interlude of church-restricted musical culture in the Middle Ages, the good folks of the Renaissance rediscovered such Greek works and tried to recreate them, giving rise to what became opera (and, much later, Broadway musicals).

* “The Epitaph of Seikilos”: the oldest surviving *complete* musical composition, it happens to be a drinking song that was inscribed on a tombstone found in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It’s a haunting tune; see lyrics below the video.

* The early church used music for ritual, like other cultures & religions of the time, but wanted to distance itself from pagan religions, so it set certain strict boundaries on what was acceptable. Music was meant to help us serve God, so no instrumental music was allowed, only religious text set to music. (That’s why “a capella” means without instruments—because that’s what was appropriate in chapel.) And music was meant to help us focus on God, so there was no music with a danceable beat, only long musical lines that are good for meditation but not for tapping your toes.
* Whatever other effects it had, the Christian church was apparently pretty much the only center of learning/transmission of written knowledge in Western Europe. So it’s thanks to them that we have surviving books etc. from this period or from the Greco-Roman writers that came before. Other cultures (“barbarians”) in the Middle Ages surely had their own music and other arts, but none of it has survived without the ability to write it down.

3. The Middle Ages
* This designates the period spanning roughly 600 to 1400 CE.
* Plainchant is what we often call Gregorian chant (after Pope Gregory I, who started the ball rolling on standardizing the liturgy throughout Europe; he never wrote any Gregorian chant, and most of it was written long after his death). It’s a single, relatively conjunct melody line, and entirely vocal. Plainchant was composed anonymously by thousands of musicians, and transmitted orally—a plainchant hymn is mostly tuneful and repetitive enough that anyone with a decent ear can learn it after a few hearings. Consider the beginning of “Ave Maris Stella” (though I’m not sure why the rest of this performance is not monophonic?):

* After a few centuries of surviving barbarian invasions, Europe began to stabilize in terms of politics and public safety; people began to live in cities; and specialization became possible. That’s when polyphonic music started to develop: you needed trained professional composers who could read and write music, since it’s much more complex to compose and transmit polyphony than a simple monophonic plainchant. Composers also began signing their works, no longer leaving them always anonymous. A highlight of this period was the school of composers known as Ars Antiqua, in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. A lot of this was two-part polyphony: a slow, low, sustained plainchant representing the hand of God (“tenor” comes from the name for this part, the “held” part since each note was held a long time); and duplum, a higher, ornamented line representing man’s celebration of God. Consider the start of this piece by composer Leonin (“Alleluya Pascha Nostrum”?): they’re only singing the single word Alleluya, in two parts (singing many changing notes over a single word is called melisma):

* Eventually, by the 14th century, national powers (kings etc.) began to compete with the church’s power; the time of three Popes (the Babylonian Captivity and Great Schism) led to reduced credibility of the Catholic church; and the Black Plague and Hundred Years’ War disrupted everyday life everywhere. Throughout all this the church’s stranglehold on arts was weakened, so for instance authors like Dante and Chaucer began writing vernacular literature. In music, the Ars Nova school (also in Notre Dame, distinguishing themselves from their precedessors the Ars Antiqua) wrote music that was no longer only religious and vocal: here’s Guillaume de Machaut’s “Quant en moy”, with two high voices, each singing a different poem, and also joined by a third low voice, an organ. The piece is “isorhythmic”, meaning that the rhythm and pitch are treated quite independently: each voice’s rhythm has a repeating pattern but no particular repeating series of pitches.

4. Introduction to the Renaissance
* People rediscovered Greco-Roman works and what they said about the power of music. Composers started trying (sometimes even with church-official approval) to make church music have that effect too, in two ways that helped the music relate the lyrics better: Make the words understandable through clear articulation (e.g. don’t write melismatic music or isorhythm, but rather fit the rhythm to the lyrics); and make the music mimic what happens in the words (e.g. rise or fall if the words speak of heavenly or lowly things).
* The Greco-Roman classicism also led to rediscovery of Pythagoras’ work: if you pluck a long string and then divide it by half, by a third, etc., you get consonant sounds on the first few steps: octaves, a fifth, a major third. You didn’t get dissonant sounds until quite far into the harmonic series. (Wait—is that why the sequence 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, … is called the harmonic series in mathematics?) The Renaissance composers went a bit further and used these ideas to start incorporating triads, i.e. harmony based on major chords and the like. This was really the first era in which harmony was used as background for a melody, i.e. homophonic music. (Greenberg compares this to the use of perspective, foreground vs. background, in painting, which started around the same time.)
* Late 15th / early 16th century composer Josquin des Prez’s music was still largely polyphonic… but it’s MUCH more consonant and conjunct than Machaut’s “Quant en moy” above (which sounds almost alien to our ears because it was based on a different harmonic structure(?), not to mention the disjunct melody lines and isorhythmic structure). Josquin’s “Petite Camusette” does have six separate polyphonic voices, but each of them is articulated more clearly (no melisma) than in 14th century music, and each voice imitates the same melodic line as they others, and each line is relatively conjunct, and the voices together form chords and harmonies that sound pleasant to our ears today:

The articulation is clear within each voice, though (due to the polyphony) still not always clear when you hear all voices sing at once.
* Thanks to the printing press, Josquin was the first composer whose work became widely published and disseminated during his lifetime—the first composer to become famous while still alive 🙂

5. The Renaissance Mass
* Early 16th century composers like Josquin started setting the Catholic high mass to music. The mass has many sub-parts, and they only set the “ordinary” (the parts that happen every time there’s a mass), not the “proper” (the parts that differ based on when in the year the mass happens). So each such musical mass had five standard parts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei(?) This is also when having four vocal parts became the standard (soprano, alto, tenor, bass).
* There were 3 kinds of mass: cantus firmus, paraphrase mass, imitation mass. Each of them chose a single underlying melody as a unifying theme for the whole mass. The cantus firmus mass would take an existing plainchant and use that, pretty much literally, as the basis for each component of the mass. The paraphrase mass would start with a plainchant but modify it, remaking it from the original modal melody into a more modern (triadic-harmony?) tune, as Josquin’s Ave Maris Stella mass takes the Ave Maris Stella plainchant (from Lecture 3) and updates or paraphrases it.

Finally, the imitation mass would take a secular song as the basis, rather than a plainchant. Gee, the church must have been getting pretty lax if they allowed this to happen…
* And indeed, in the late 16th century, the Protestant Reformation came along, which prompted the Catholic church’s internal counter-reformation, which meant coming down hard on all this experimental stuff and getting back to strict rules about church music. They were ready to ban polyphony and anything else that would get in the way of understanding the words. The story goes that the composer Palestrina wrote his “Mass for Pope Marcellus” to convince the censors otherwise. He was able to write a six-part polyphony in which the articulation was very clear, which convinced the church that polyphony like his is OK after all. It worked because (unlike in preceding polyphony) new words would enter only one at a time, not over top of each other: whenever a new syllable was uttered, the other voices were just holding long vowels, so you could make out each new word. The melody lines themselves are also plainchant-like, not chromatic at all. His composing style was very influential and is still a core required course for composition students today. Compare his Agnus Dei to Josquin’s:

6. The Madrigal
* Once the mass was no longer a place for composers to experiment (thanks to the counter-reformation), Renaissance madrigals became the big experimental musical form of the time. The point was to set expressive poetry to music that would heighten the poem’s emotional effect, but again the focus was almost more on the words than on the music. The way they decided to accomplish this was through word painting, such as low or gloomy sounds when the poem mentions death. This is all very clever, but rather literal-minded, and it paints each word or phrase rather than the whole poem at once: even a sad poem will be interrupted by bright, chipper moments when the poet mentions the word “life”.
* Again with the Renaissance focus on clear articulation: madrigals are sung a capella, and one person per part.
* Lots of madrigals were written by Flemish-born composers working in Italy, celebrating their wealthy patrons.
* Listen to “As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending” by Weelkes: descending musical lines when the poem talks about going down a hill; ascending lines when going up the hill; the group pauses to have a single person sing the words “all alone”; the word “long” in “long live fair Oriana” is held for a long time; etc.

7. An Introduction to the Baroque Era
* The first opera was created in 1600 and Bach died in 1750, so this is the only broad era discussed here where the round-number starting/ending dates really do have a significant meaning.
* Age of Science, Age of Reason: Europeans started learning the fine details of how the world works, and also how nature is arranged in an orderly manner; and this is mirrored in the detailed, intricate, but balanced and symmetric art of the era.
* Unlike the Renaissance church music, such as Palestrina’s Agnus Dei suitable to contemplative prayer, the Baroque church music was expressive and enthusiastic: God is in the details, so there’s a ton of ornamentation, but God keeps them in order, so all the intricate ornamented parts are balanced with each other. See Bach’s B Minor Mass, “Hosanna in excelsis”:

* In secular music, Baroque composers found more ways to be expressive inherently in the music, not merely by clearly articulating the words and highlighting them with word painting. Unlike the clever but literal Renaissance madrigals, a sad Baroque aria would keep a minor key throughout the whole song. Also, with only one singer, her performance could really be more expressive and individualistic, instead of needing to mesh anonymously with a faceless group while singing a madrigal. Consider “Dido’s Lament” by Purcell (my favorite new-to-me piece of music in this entire course):

* The French overture, as a musical form, is a typical overture style written for the entry of the king (“French” because of the great arts patron Louis XIV the Sun King) before the opera or other entertainment starts. The start of Handel’s Water Music is a good example:

8. Style Features of Baroque-era Music
* The Baroque was the first major era for purely instrumental music for music’s sake (unlike ceremonial/ritual music like fanfares, or dance music where the dancing itself was the real point). To talk about this abstract art form, you need special vocabulary, which this lecture is all about.
* Every musical sound has a pitch and a timbre. A note is a pitch with duration. A melody is any timed sequence of notes (that includes polyphonic parts, homophonic “boring” parts like bass lines, and random banging on the piano keys). A motive is a melody-chunk that gets reused (usually with variations), a theme is a longer melody built by arranging and transforming motives, and a tune is a lyrical melody. Beethoven’s 5th opens with a very motivic melody, while a typical Tchaikovsky melody is more lyrical though it has motives as building blocks too.
* Music can be monophony (one voice, like plainchant), polyphony, or homophony. Polyphony might be imitative or not. If it’s imitative, it can be strict (like a canon or round), or non-strict (like most polyphony). Non-imitative is rarer, but we heard some in Lecture 3, in Guillaume de Machaut’s “Quant en moy.” Homophony has a single main thematic melody, and the other voices (though they are playing “melodies” too) have supporting roles, which are just less interesting—there’s “less information content” in them than in the main melody.
* Baroque-era scientific thinking, precision, and standardization gave rise to new tuning systems, including the well-tempered system still in use today, and to the standard major and minor scales we use; to new musical instruments, like the piano, and the perfection of older ones, like the organ and violin; to improvements in sheet music notation, like division into bars; to then-new, now-standard orchestrations, like the violin family replacing the da gamba family, or to the basso continuo acting as a control mechanism on the other instruments; etc.

9. National Styles—Italy and Germany
* Greenberg claims that the sound of the language affects the kind of music written for that language: Latin, and later Italian, have lots of nice long sonorous vowels, so you can write really melismatic music, holding those vowels for a long time across several notes … while German is full of harsh consonants and short words, so it’s conducive to more compact, syllabic music, where each note goes with a new syllable. His examples were kind of a stretch, but maybe he’s on to something.
* In any case, as the Renaissance transitioned into the Baroque, the Italian peninsula remained Catholic and so its sacred music remained rooted in that tradition. On the secular side, Italian opera began to develop, eventually leading to the musical forms of the symphony (which grew out of operatic overtures) and the concerto (which developed from instrumental equivalents to singers’ arias?).
* Meanwhile, Germany became Protestant (mostly Lutheran) after the Reformation and started its own musical tradition. The Protestants moved from use of Latin to vernacular language for hymns and other religious music, so any differences in music-to-be-sung-in-German vs. music-to-be-sung-in-Italian started to appear. Also, Martin Luther himself had a lot of love and respect for music as a spiritual endeavor, so Lutherans started to treat both sacred and profane music as a way to worship and praise God, filling their daily lives with German-language hymns or chorales, both inside church and out. Bach’s secular music, not just his church music, is inscribed with dedications to God or Jesus.

10. Fugue
* Very nice lecture on breaking down what makes a fugue. It’s meant to show off what can be done with a good fugue subject (all the inversions, bending, breaking, twisting it can do), so if you start with a really good subject, the fugue almost writes itself.
* Pythagoras’ comma: if you do a circle of perfect fifths, the last note isn’t same pitch as starting note: it’s just a wee bit sharp… Hence Renaissance folks tried “mean tempering” (tuning down SOME but not all of the fifths); Baroque folks went for “equal tempering” (tuning down all of the fifths by the exact same amount); and Bach went for “well tempering” (tuning down all the fifths almost equally, but some a bit more than others)—he was apparently a stickler for precise tuning and tuned everything himself since nobody else could do it right 🙂
* Handel’s chicken coop fugue is a really cute fugue, whose theme is basically one note played faster and faster like a pecking chicken 🙂 See starting around 1:20 here:

11-12. Baroque Opera, Part 1-2
* Intermezzo: musical interlude (choral+instrumental?) between acts of a play—the forerunner of opera
* A single vocal soloist can be much more expressive than an ensemble of singers trying to meld
* Florentine Camerata tried to figure out how the Greeks could have gotten the emotional response that they claimed to get from their drama, and decided it was due to the use of music; 3 corollaries; Galileo’s dad bashed polyphony and word painting; they wanted the music itself to be emotionally expressive, not just to support the literary expression of the text
* Jacopo Peri’s Euridice was the 1st thing we call opera today, in 1600. He developed “stilo recitativo,” a style more musical than regular speech but more natural than strict singing, which became the standard way to provide narration or commentary on the action.
* Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1607 was the first great opera; Monteverdi was not part of the Florentine Camerata and didn’t have strong feelings/theories about trying to recover whatever the Greeks did in their stagecraft—he just took the recitative, intermezzo, and other recent developments and used them to their maximum potential
* Arias weren’t invented until the late 1600s, at which point they elbowed out recitatives, which sadly fell out of common use (or just became treated as less interesting). Unlike the present- or forward-looking recitatives, arias were used for reflection on the past and for a bigger focus on the emotional state of the singer. Recitatives were often secco, dry, accompanied with just basso continuou, while arias tended to be accompanied with the full orchestra.

13. Oratorio
* I hadn’t known how influential opera was on religious music!
* Oratorio (from the name of the place where they were first performed, the oratory) is basically a multi-act opera based on a religious text or Bible story, but performed as a concert piece: there are arias and recitativos and narration, but no acting. Baroque opera became hugely popular among the common public in Catholic Italy, but such secular entertainment was forbidden during Lent… so oratorio was the closest thing that the church allowed, and became popular with the public (as well as opera musicians and composers who would otherwise be out of work for those 40 days).
* Oratorio in England, Handel the savvy businessman, Messiah

14. The Lutheran Church Cantata
* The Lutheran Sunday service includes a Bible passage (prescribed for each week of the year), a chorale about the passage, a cantata built around the chorale, and finally a sermon about the reading. If the oratorio is like a multi-act religious opera, the cantata is like a one-act religious opera (though it can have multiple movements).
* Chorales are just a melody; Bach’s chorale harmonizations are lovely; Wachet Auf cantata; ritornello

15. Passacaglia
* Passacaglia, ground bass, and chaconne (or ciacona) all mean the same thing: a sort of theme-and-variations… except the theme is in the bass and keeps cycling around non-stop without change, while the variations all happen in the melodies/harmonies above the bass.
* Dido’s Lament is a hauntingly beautiful example: the bass line keeps repeating, chromatically descending to represent death, while the upper lines (and even the harmonies?) change around it. The aria’s breaks between phrases don’t correspond exactly with the ends of the bass theme phrases, which keeps the whole thing rolling even more. Here’s another recording, with an easy-to-follow simplified score:

* Greenberg also plays Bach’s organ Passacaglia in C Minor, but I really hated the way he added a buzzing noise to “help” you follow along with the bass theme. Maybe it’ll help you see the structure of the piece—if you’re totally incapable of hearing the bass line otherwise—but it also makes the whole thing unbearable to hear.

18. Viennese Style
* Nice explanation of cadences: open, closed, pseudo, amen? (Check these names…) Baroque music was a nonstop progression with no obvious breaks. It was quite cyclical (a fugue alternates fugal and developmental sections; a passacaglia’s bass line repeats the structural theme over and over; the theme keeps returning in ritornello form)… but the end of one section and the start of the next would overlap and transition onwards seamlessly. In the Classical era, on the other hand, they explicitly wanted to make the seams clear: it gives the audience a breather, and lets the composer transition to a quite different section (e.g. based on a different theme) rather than continuing more-of-the-same. So, cadences were present in the Baroque but never dealt with in detail; but the Classical folks explicitly worked on developing a cadential language that we still use and understand to this day.
* I wish I’d learned this kind of stuff much earlier! I was never interested in composing music because I thought either you just magically have talent/inspiration, or you don’t. It never clicked until now that composers actually just work to build a conscious working knowledge of musical forms/processes that’ll help make the music comprehensible to an audience. Maybe writing music is not so impossible after all!

19. Theme and Variations
* Pick a nice theme. Catalogue its properties (meter, tempo, mode, etc.). Write a variation that changes each or several of the properties (faster or slower; 2/4 to 3/4; major to minor; homophonic to polyphonic; etc.). Rinse and repeat. When you run out of ideas, cap it off with a grand coda, to make clear it’s over and there isn’t just another variation coming along. The coda is especially important here because the theme and each variation end with a closed cadence; so just “one last variation” ending on a closed cadence isn’t going to sound convincingly final.

23-25. Sonata Form
* Mozart loved wordplay and puns. His official middle name on the birth certificate(?) was “Theophilus” or “love of God”; his dad sent out birth announcements(?) listing it as the Germanified “Gottlieb”; and only later did he mess around with it to go by the Frenchified “Amadei.” The version that stuck until today, Amadeus, seems to be due to a publisher’s error on a posthumous printing of his complete works.
* “Sonata” has two meanings: (1) a multi-movement piece for piano, or piano plus one other instrument, or (2) a movement written via the “sonata allegro” musical form/process. These lectures describe the 2nd definition.
* Theme and variations, Minuet and trio, and Rondo forms all have one principal theme. Sonata, or “sonata allegro” form, lets the composer work with two or more principal themes in the same movement.
* The exposition shows off all the themes; the development works with them to build drama; the recapitulation brings them back together for a conclusion; and there’s often a coda too.
* Between the statements of the themes, there’s a modulating bridge. What makes this bridge sound like neither part of the 1st theme, nor like a theme of its own?

26. The Symphony
* Haydn sounds like an awesome guy: nice, friendly, patient, good-humored, hard-working, productive…

33. Introduction to Romanticism
* Much Baroque had the church authorities and/or God (depending on how you look at it) as the “target audience.” So composers worked out standard musical forms that’d express humanity’s devotion, not so much their own personality. When you hear a Baroque piece you know it’s Baroque, but couldn’t start to guess whether it’s by Handel or Telemann or Vivaldi. They just tried to please the church and/or their patrons.
Then, with the Enlightenment, there was a utilitarian bent and composers started trying to please the mass public. They developed new standard musical forms that were easier for audiences to follow. Mozart or Haydn symphonies are easy listening, comparatively: there’s still a ton of complex structure and interesting things going on, but it’s not thrown in your face the way it is with a fugue. And it can still be hard to tell which of them or their contemporaries wrote a given piece. They were trying to please their patrons and/or their audience.
Finally, with the Romantic era, composers started trying to show off their own individual personalities in their work. Chopin’s music is very clearly distinguishable from that of Schubert or Berlioz or Liszt. Standard musical forms became much less important. Instead, composers might write miniatures that expressed a single mood at a time very evocatively, rather than long symphonies tied together by adherence to standards of structure. Or they would write long pieces, but ones tied together by a complete storyline, not something like sonata form, and ones that’d include repeating musical themes like Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique’s idee fixe. They were trying to please their own inner muse, not a specific patron.
[I’m not clear on *why* this transition from Classical to Romantic happened. Partly Beethoven’s influence, partly something something French Revolution something something? Beethoven was a cocky pupil who refused to learn from Haydn, so he ended up doing his own thing, which kinda pissed off his elders and contemporaries, but had a big impact on the next generation that grew up with Beethoven’s compositions. And the French Revolution was a time of revolutionary change throughout Europe, apparently inspiring artists and everyone else to think of heroism and self-expression.]

45. An Introduction to Early 20th-Century Modernism
* Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde overture and some of Mahler’s works departed quite far from the usual approach to tonal music. There’s no straightforward cadences and resolutions. Instead, they developed the idea of the “abortive gesture,” which seems to be music that starts to build a recognizable idea but cuts it off before it resolves, for dramatic effect. Still, the core building blocks were still familiar, even if they weren’t being used “the right way.”

46. Debussy
* Debussy departed from the usual ideas about what makes a theme (melody, harmony), and focused instead on instrumental timbre or tone color as the theme. Much of his music doesn’t “go anywhere”—there’s no path of traditional exposition, development, etc. in many of his works. But despite the lack of a “story” to follow, and the use of dissonance, it’s still pleasant music to listen to, in a way that Schönberg’s simply isn’t 🙁

47. Stravinsky
* If Debussy developed the idea of timbre-as-theme, Stravinsky did the same with rhythm. He built off the asymmetric rhythms of the Russian language and wrote music full of highly-rhythmic but asymmetric accents, which drive the music forward even without a traditional melody.

48. Schönberg
* Okay, to my ears, his music is indistinguishable from the sound of several amateur musicians warming up independently in the same room. Seriously: this literally sounds like what I remember from high school, when several of us kids were all preparing to audition for All-District Band.
* But it’s possible to give some context for it: Schönberg wanted to continue directly in the same tack as his German late-Romantic predecessors, but simplify by focusing on melody alone and not worrying about the tonality of the music. It’s kind of a throwback to the times of isorhythm and Guillaume de Machaut: polyphonic music where each melody line does its own thing.
* Plus, with the pieces that Greenberg plays for us (selections from the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire), these are poems set to music, so understanding the poem helps explain a lot of the word painting etc. that the music is illustrating. On the other hand, I can’t say I generally love poetry, and this particular poetry doesn’t move me at all, so no wonder the music doesn’t either.
* The reason the singer sounds like she’s half-shouting is… because she is indeed. The piece was commissioned for performance by a non-singer, so Schönberg used a trick he learned during his days of writing cabaret music, and he wrote the vocal part as “Sprechstimme”: the kind of half-singing, half-speech used by actors in cabaret music. (I recognize this idea from Polish cabaret music too.)
* Even so, I can’t stomach this! With pre-20th-century music, I can usually follow along. With some 20-century stuff (like Debussy and Stravinsky), even if I can’t follow it I can appreciate the mood it sets. But Pierrot Lunaire is over a hundred years old, yet it still hasn’t become a familiar and comfortable kind of music, the way that Classical and Romantic forms became familiar to audiences. Composers since Beethoven have been focused more and more on expressing themselves, rather than pleasing the listener; so does that mean I’m just not interested in what Schönberg wants to express?

Overall, it’s been a good (but LONG!) course. I do wish Greenberg had spent a bit less time on jokes and on gossip about composers’ personal lives, and more time on concrete musical examples (which were great when he presented them—just not often enough for my taste). And I got tired of taking notes partway through, even though there were plenty of interesting insights I wish I’d written down (now I’ve forgotten much of it).
The course has given me more appreciation for how novel some old- or familiar-sounding works must have been when they were first composed. The first few lectures (pre-Baroque) were particularly good, helping me understand why homophony wasn’t just obvious to pre-Classical composers. I also learned how important opera was to the development of music I love, even if I can’t stand the sound of operatic vibrato.
Finally, listening to the technical discussions of motive and standard musical forms, I’ve almost felt inspired to try composing something myself. I still haven’t, but at least I have a sense that it’s possible. Many great works came out of following standard “forms” or “processes,” not just sprang out of the composer’s head ex nihilo, so it’d be perfectly respectable (and not just “painting by numbers”) if I wanted to compose something using these forms too.

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