Presentation Slides

Session One Slides (pdf)

General Introduction

During the Winter Term at The LIFE Institute I will be offering "Pocket History: Western Classical Music". The course will consist of six Zoom sessions plus an optional face-to-face event. The official description reads:

"Many of us have been exposed to the “big names” of classical music. The music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms is familiar and loved by many. But there were (and are) hundreds of other composers toiling away, often creating music of beauty, depth, and power. Changes in the recording industry have made available music that was infrequently heard in the concert hall; the library of classical music recordings now covers the work of far more composers.
"We’ll start with the music of composers such as William Byrd (1539-1623) and Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and proceed century-by-century until we’re listening to appealing and attractive music composed in the last 100 years. The music of such composers as Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) and Robert Simpson (1921-1997) warrants hearing again. The class participants will have a hand in determining which music is to be examined."

Two concerns inspired me to offer this course. One concern is with the thousands of composers whose music has almost been forgotten, but is now being rediscovered. The other concern is with the differences we can recognize and hear between music of the Renascence, the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern eras. In the limited time of the course I can't hope to do more than point selected composers and some of the important differences to be found in the history of western classical music.

In this course, as in all other LIFE courses I have offered, my goal is to be Entertaining, Engaging and Educational (in no particular order). Participants will have the opportunity to just sit back and listen to the great music. They will also have the opportunity to comment on which music warrants consideration, and on such differences I point out between eras, instruments and audiences/patrons.

There is a published week-by-week description of planned material to cover:

  • Week 1: This will introduce the sweep and breadth of western classical music, from before the baroque era through the modern era. The support for music in the different era and different locations provides helpful background information. The transition from the baroque statement of an idea (musical pattern) to the romantic musical drive and passion will be an important topic for discussion. Class members will be encourage to express their preferences for the music that should be considered in the class.
  • Week 2: This week we’ll consider the pattern oriented music that culminated in the work of J.S.Bach. Numerology and rhetoric provided important background perspectives for composers and performers. The composer was often considered more of a skilled craftsman than a musical genius. Such was the view of Bach and many of his contemporaries.
  • Week 3: The focus will be on the transition from the baroque to the classical eras, roughly from 1750 to 1800. Bach’s sons played an important role in the musical shift from patterns to development and flow. We’ll consider the role of the “big 3” – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. We’ll also consider the shift from pleasing a patron to pleasing an audience. This will take us to the beginning of what many consider the heart of western classical music.
  • Week 4: This week we’ll consider the music composed and performed from roughly 1800 to 1850. Beethoven will again play an important role, but so will Mendelesson, Schubert, Schumann. And women will begin to play a more public role in writing music, e.g. Fanny Mendelesson and Clara Schumann. It was during this period that chamber music began to take on a more important role. Playing such music did not require a large, expensive orchestra and publishing such music provided welcomed funding for composer
  • Week 5: Music of the next 50 years (1850-1900) can almost be seen as the “culmination” of the romantic era. Brahms played a leading role both as a personality and as a composer. And the “star” composer/performers gain international prominence. Liszt made a name for himself, and his transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies are still being played. Dvorak and Mahler both spent time in America, and nationalistic music arose, prominently in Russia.
  • Week 6: The twentieth century proved a difficult time for music and for composers. Schoenberg returned to work with patterns, but from an atonal foundation. Stravinsky broke free from all of the established conventions. Composers such as Bartok, Copeland and Sibelius took strongly nationalistic paths. And Russian classical music developed in interesting ways under a dictator who recognized the value of music, but objected to western modernism. There are a raft of questions about what came next and what lies in the future. We’ll ask the questions, but will not pretend to have the answers.

Important Note: This description is the planned course content, assuming no participant contributions. But participants will be encourage to contribute, ... and the content will shift to reflect those contributions.