Saturday, October 19, 2013

In review--In appreciation of European Art Music

Book review
How to Listen to Great Music 
A Guide to its History, Culture & Art
Robert Greenberg 
Plume Book/Penguin

I’m a music appreciation junkie and when I find a music appreciation book with a flowing narrative, theory that’s explained in a way I can understand, and biographical details of composers tossed in, I climb on board.  I have taught music appreciation courses, but my focus was on world and folkloric music.  Robert Greenberg, a composer and music historian not only teaches through the pages of How to Listen to Great Music, but he also teaches a series through his teaching company, Great Courses.

In this book, he gets us started with medieval and renaissance music and then we’re off into the baroque, classical, romantic and post modern eras--starting with Gregorian chant and landing in the terrain of Arnold Schoenberg.  We learn about fugues and musical structures from each of the musical/cultural eras as Greenberg delves into the minds and emotions of the composers. And did I say that reading this book provides entertainment too?  Greenberg has a dry sense of humor that most of us outside of the academic world get.

However, the downside of this book is that it focuses on the main composers from Italy and Austria/Germany mostly and we don’t hear about the composers from Spain, Finland, Norway, England, or the United States.  We also don’t hear about any women composers, which sadly, is usually the case with music appreciation books and courses.  Perhaps, in this regard, the book offers a jumping off point where we get the basics and then go off and explore composers not mentioned in the pages of this book such as Ravel, Sibelius, Elgar, Hildegard of Bingen and Marie de France on our own.

If you enjoy hearing more about Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bach and the opera composers of Italy and Germany, then you’re in luck.  And Greenberg does cover the basics of culture, history and structure while placing it into context we can understand even in our fast-paced high-tech world.

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