Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Great Courses: The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

Just out of curiosity, I pulled up this page on the Great Courses offering of the 30 Greatest Orchestral Works. It costs over $100 to download so let's just have a look at the list.

32 Lectures
1 Game Plan and Preliminaries
2 Vivaldi—The Four Seasons
3 Bach—Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
4 Bach—Violin Concerto in E Major
5 Haydn—Symphony No. 104
6 Mozart—Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor
7 Mozart—Symphony in C Major, “Jupiter”
8 Beethoven—Symphony No. 3
9 Beethoven—Piano Concerto No. 4
10 Beethoven—Symphony No. 9
11 Schubert—Symphony No. 9
12 Mendelssohn—“Italian” Symphony
13 Schumann—Symphony No. 3
14 Brahms—Symphony No. 4
15 Brahms—Violin Concerto
16 Tchaikovsky—Symphony No. 4
17 Tchaikovsky—Violin Concerto
18 Bedrich Smetana—Má Vlast
19 Dvorák—Symphony No. 8
20 Dvorák—Concerto for ’Cello
21 Rimsky-Korsakov—Scheherazade
22 Richard Strauss—Thus Spoke Zarathustra
23 Mahler—Symphony No. 5
24 Rachmaninoff—Symphony No. 2
25 Debussy—La Mer Debussy’s revolutionary music flowed from his fascination with timbres and colors of sound, as well as from the movement to create an authentically French music that followed the Franco-Prussian War. In La Mer (The Sea), enter the world of Debussy’s dazzling musical language; his sensuous instrumental textures depicting the shimmering play of light and color, the surging motion and awesome natural force of the oceans.
26 Stravinsky—The Rite of Spring
27 Saint-Saëns—Symphony No. 3
28 Holst—The Planets
29 Copland—Appalachian Spring
30 Shostakovich—Symphony No. 5
31 Shostakovich—Symphony No. 10
32 The Ones That Got Away

If you follow the link there is a paragraph explanation that pops up for each lecture. You can see the note attached to Debussy's La Mer above, but there is one for each lecture. I suggest going there and having a look at some of the descriptions. Here, for example, is how the note about the Symphony No. 3 by Beethoven begins:
Beethoven's Eroica Symphony is deeply linked to critical events in his life.
This theme is one that is mentioned in a number of other places, such as the notes on other symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert.

This series is very popular with amateur music lovers and I'm sure that it has an overall beneficent influence on people's appreciation of music. But it also leads them down the garden path, does it not? Why do I say that? Largely because if Professor Greenberg expressed any of these sentiments in a graduate seminar in musicology, he would attract very swift correction. Now I am not a lock-step follower of musicological fashion. If you want to call a theme "thrusting" I am not going to tell you that is sexist. But it is undeniable that in the last several decades musicology has made some progress in interpreting music history and reception.

Just picking the Debussy note out as an example, all composers are fascinated with timbres and colors of sound (which are the same thing). Using the phrase "authentically French music" is rather problematic as well as the use of the word "authentic" has pretty much degenerated into mere market promotion. The idea that sensuous instrumental textures can "depict" the surging motion and awesome natural force of the oceans is a dubious conceit indeed. Instrumental music is simply not representational in that way. If Debussy had titled his piece "Galactic Nebulas" then I'm sure that Prof. Greenberg would tell us that his sensuous instrumental textures depict that equally well.

The notion that instrumental pieces like a symphony by Beethoven or Schubert is linked to the composer's political disillusionment or contraction of syphilis is also very problematic. Music is not autobiography and I have discussed why it is not in various places on this blog.

The truth is that while the purchasers of this series think they are getting high-quality scholarship and engaging introductions to the music, what I suspect that they are actually getting are gussied up program notes with all the failings and shortcomings of program notes: dated scholarship, clichéd accounts, misleading descriptions and most telling of all, no real engagement with the actual music instead of the composer's biography.

But I have not listened to nor watched the actual lectures themselves, I am just judging based on the descriptions. But if they correspond to the lectures, then I think this is not as useful as it seems. If any readers have watched this series, then I welcome your input.

To end, let's listen to Schubert's Symphony No. 9 (which should actually be No. 8 as there is no No. 7) and see if we can hear his "tragic ordeal with syphilis":


A.C. Douglas said...

The notion that instrumental pieces like a symphony by Beethoven or Schubert is linked to the composer's political disillusionment or contraction of syphilis is also very problematic. Music is not autobiography....

Indeed it is not. It's been a position of mine of longstanding that while music composed by a composer of modest or questionable gift may, to greater or lesser extent, be tinged by the autobiographical, for composers of great gift it never is. T.S. Eliot put the matter most succinctly: "[T]he more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates..." (taken from the essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent").



Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much for the Eliot quote! I think I read that essay, but it was a long, long time ago.

Marc Puckett said...

That Eliot essay is here, I had written a couple of paragraphs going on about Eliot surely not meaning that were e.g. Mozart to be miraculously translated to 1932 in Vienna he would thereupon, necessarily, as it were, because of his abnormal mind), deliver himself of a Mozart-worthy body of work-- was thinking about your speculations about how Mozart might have been Wagner avant la lettre, as it were, had he lived-- and then I read the Eliot at more length (thank you, A.C. Douglas) ("the more perfect the artist... the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material") and realised I was being wrong-headed.

There was a moment a few years when I almost purchased that series of DVDs or some similar program, but it passed; I hope someone volunteers to report on his or her experience of it.

zhenyach said...

I haven't listened to this particular course, but have listened to a few other musical courses by Robert Greenberg. And, while he does tell a lot of biographical facts, he actually quite painstakingly drives through the idea that it's wrong to link the works' contents to the composers' life events. With a very few exceptions.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, zhenyach. I'm glad to hear it. But it is quite odd then that in many of the descriptions, starting with Mozart, he over and over again stresses the link between the biographical circumstances and the musical work. What's up with that? Misleading advertising?

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks, zhenyach! your comment reads as if you considered the course 'worth it'. I belong to a Yahoo group in re Bach's cantatas, and discovered through it Julian Mincham's site re the cantatas, []. Another 'model', if you will: quite extensive and he relies on donations.