For the Love of Classical Music

A Live Chat with Professor Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances

On October 30, 2013, Professor Robert Greenberg sat down for a live Q&A session with his fans from across the globe. The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

photo of Professor Robert Greenberg
Dr. Robert Greenberg

PAT: Please discuss the most recent trends in “concert music.” I hear popular music but was wondering about this.

GREENBERG: Pat: The only trend in concert music that I can comfortably identify is that it represents a synthesis of unlike parts, meaning all the stuff around us.

FRED: Professor Greenberg – I have your course on Mozart – I have always wondered if Mozart were to be able to hear say Gershwin or the theme from “Dances with Wolves” or something like that – would he appreciate it or would it be totally foreign to him due to structure etc.?

GREENBERG: Fred: I think that Mozart would have little trouble following any tonal music, although the rhythmic language of Gershwin, being based, as it is on African music, would have left him a bit perplexed.

RICK: I would really like to see you continue further with the fundamentals of music course, up to and including much more advanced levels. Perhaps you would consider paralleling a set of courses that would cover a four year degree in music theory and composition. I would be happy to purchase them. Your other courses (have all but the opera) get almost as much airplay at my house as my Led Zeppelin discs. (that is a lot of airplay).

GREENBERG: Rick: the great challenge in Fundamentals, and any such subsequent course, is how to deal with the details of musical structure and theory without having to resort to music notation.

MIMI: How is music a language that communicates and transcends all languages across cultures, peoples, and times? How does music connect the humanity in spite of differences and barriers?

GREENBERG: Mimi: a proper response to your question would require a book-length answer. Suffice it that music, like language, employs sounds in time. Unlike spoken language, however, the vocabulary/syntax of music is generalized, and therefore – I think – immediately accessible to a wide variety of listeners.

NANCY: I’ve loved all the courses I’ve listened to so far. Some suggestions for future courses that I would especially like include 20th/21st century music; also, I would love a complete course on Bartok’s music!

GREENBERG: Nancy: yes, Bartok’s music, which I adore. FYI, Bartok’s publisher (Boosey and Hawkes) outright refuses to license his music to The Great Courses, for reasons only they know. A terrible shame.

BILL: What about the chance of a course on jazz?

GREENBERG: Bill: I would dearly love to do a jazz course. Again, the licensing issues are tremendous, as we would have to license not only the music itself but the particular recording that performs the music. The expenses are prodigious and thus far beyond the resources of TGC.

JORDAN: Finding 30 Greatest Orchestral works lovely, but frustrating. Seems we just get started and it’s over. The long form courses — Fundamental, and How to Listen, provide a fabulous educational arc, and the in-depth composer courses, like the Symphonies of Beethoven, are fabulous in the level of depth that you are able to build into the entire course. Any advice for listening to 30 Greatest Orchestral works in a more fulfilling way?

GREENBERG: Jordan: yes, the 30 greatest orchestral works and the 23 greatest solo piano works can be a bit frustrating, as each lecture is self-standing. Nevertheless, they do allow us to tackle a range of repertoire that a more detailed course could not. Your point is well taken, though. Given my druthers, I’d go on . . . and on . .

CAMERON: How important do you think it is to think about music from these different, perhaps less traditional perspectives? Do they enhance, supplement, or detract from a robust understanding of music?

GREENBERG: Cameron: I’m naive enough to believe that we can learn something from pretty much any piece of music. However, I would also assert that there are so many hours in the day, and that a study of the Western canon might be a wise way to spend our limited temporal resources.

JOHN W.: What are your recommendations for an adult who wants to learn to play the piano regarding musical literature, CDs, teaching DVDs, and finding an instructor who’s prepared to teach an adult? I want an emphasis on musicality from the beginning, not just how to get around on the keyboard.

GREENBERG: John W.: the keys for an adult music student are one, a good teacher (meaning a living, breathing person) and, two, a lack of expectation: the lessons and practice should be enjoyed for their own sakes.

IZAAK: You never mention which recordings you are using, I presume you aren’t allowed. Would you consider creating a page of your personal favorite performances?

GREENBERG: Izaak: you are precisely correct – licensing agreements often preclude me from identifying performers. I would be happy to compile a list of recommended recordings. I will discuss this with TGC.

WESLEY: I have wondered why you don’t have a better, more in-tune piano with you as you record your lectures!!

GREENBERG: Wesley: believe it or not, the pianos I use in the studio are tuned every other day! The issues are temperature change and the fact that the by the time a recording session ENDS, the piano is still getting accustomed “to the room”.

THOMAS: Mozart and DaPonte: Why so little in the memoirs about their relationship?

GREENBERG: Thomas: Da Ponte says little about Mozart because – to my mind – he was an unbridled egoist, who was loath to give anyone (even Mozart) credit for anything.

PETER: My question concerns a particular chord that he has referenced in more than one course; the I6/4 chord. I understand the concept of adding tones to the basic triad (Maj7, 6th, 13th) or altering a pitch (dom7, sus4, Aug, Dim, b9th). Would a I6/4 be, for example in the key of C, [C E F G A], [C F G A], the suspended 4th of the 6th chord [A D E], or am I totally off the mark in trying to decipher this chord?

GREENBERG: Here, I’ll make it worse. Technically, a 6/4 chord is a double appoggiature, in which two of its pitches resolve downwards to consonance. I know: that did NOT help.

MICHAEL R.: Does Tchaikovsky give any detailed indication as to why he does hate his music? In your professional opinion, can you explain why?

GREENBERG: I do not think that Tchaikovsky hated his music. I do think, however, that he was extremely insecure, and that he often criticized his work as a result of pure defensiveness.

JOHN R. OF NY: A critic once described Duke Ellington as “the Delius of jazz”. Can you clarify and share your thoughts?

GREENBERG: John: I would go so far as to call Ellington the Haydn of jazz.

KRISTEN: I have unsuccessfully looked for CDs of music composed by you on Amazon. Where can I find recordings of your compositions?

GREENBERG: Kristen: thanks for asking. My recordings are all out of print; I have been remaindered in my own time. However, a number of performances of my stuff can be seen and heard on YouTube.

RICHARD: Can you be cloned so we can have more lectures?

GREENBERG: Richard: I can be cloned, but cannot be held responsible for the damage multiple Bob G’s might wreak on the world as we know it.

GEORGE: How long does it take to prepare and record a course of, say, 24 lectures?

GREENBERG: George: from start to finish, it takes a full year to create a 24-lecture course. 8-10 months to write, two weeks to record, and then another month of post-production.

TOM: Can you recommend any pieces by other contemporary composers? Would love an introduction to what I guess would be called contemporary music, including maybe George Crumb, Philip Glass, Zbigniew Preisner, Larry Polansky, and Richard Einhorn. (I’d love to find some others to listen to—gotta keep stretching the ears!) But would The Great Courses venture into what may be a limited audience?

GREENBERG: As for recommending new music, I would let my fingers and ears do the walking through YouTube. If you like what you hear, look up a composer on his/her website and find out what’s available. Unfortunately, TGC is not likely to make a course that will have an admittedly limited appeal.

MARY: I would love a course on The Greatest Choral Works.

GREENBERG: Mary: I, too, would love to do a choral works course, particularly one that focused on works for chorus and orchestra.

MICHEL: Professor Greenberg, Even after listening to your course on Bach (which I loved), I still do not “get” the Variations Goldberg. Nor do I get the differences between his chorals. For example “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein!” at the end of the first part of the Christmas Oratorio. The main melody is used often, in the Matthews passion and other cantatas; but to me it always sound the same. Do you think that there is something intrinsically wrong with me, or is it that this kind of appreciation is only available to “real musicians?” Note that I have Beethoven’s syndrome and that my hearing-aids may not help enough! Do you have an advice to help me “get” it?

GREENBERG: I would lose little sleep over not “getting” the Goldberg Variations. Like everything else in life, not everything appeals (or is understood by everyone.)

GEORGE: Howard Goodall (British guy, composer of some soundtracks, and educator) said that until the Beatles, “serious composers” thought that all the good tunes had been written and therefore, they turned to experimental music (such as electronic and plinkety-plink stuff). Only after the Beatles did so-called “classical music” return to melody. Thoughts?

GREENBERG: George: I love the Beatles as much as the next guy (probably more), but let’s not get carried away. I would attribute return to a more melodically oriented musical vocabulary in the concert music of the late 20th century to an inevitable (and thankful) rejection of earlier, modernist trends that essentially declared melody “dead”. That musical modernism was, in turn, a reaction against the nationalism and mystic Romanticism that were perceived as being at the root of Fascism. So the pendulum constantly swings. For what it was worth, both Bach and Beethoven were accused by their contemporaries of writing “non-melodic” music.

CAROL: Have enjoyed sharing ‘notes’ on your courses with Allan Pollack and Paul Hersch. Also, great performers and teachers. But, you’re our very most favorite. We’ll continue to consume every course you do.

GREENBERG: Allan and I were grad students together and Paul a beloved colleague at the San Francisco Conservatory. Small world.

SELWYN: I’m sorry to repeat myself, but a course in Brahms’ chamber music would be wonderful.

GREENBERG: Selwyn: in my humble opinion, Brahms was THE most important composer of chamber music after Mozart. I could do an entire course just on the Horn Trio.

GEORGE: Totally ignorant of Brahms chamber music. Where to start?

GREENBERG: George: start with the piano quartets, string quintets, and the horn trio. Then move on to the piano quintet, the string sextets and finally, the string quartets. Fantastic. (Brahms also wrote vocal quartets for four voices and piano: wonderful exquisite works).

WILLIAM: My music teacher wants me to stop seeing alpha notes but see lines and spaces. Your comment?

GREENBERG: William: in time (and with practice) you’ll stop seeing alphabetical notes and lines and spaces and will, instead, just KNOW what the correct pitch is by instinct in the same way that we read not by sounding out letters but by recognizing words.

HYARLOTHOTEP: what’s a good starter piece for Eric Satie?

GREENBERG: Satie = Gymnopidies.

KASEY: Thanks, just a general comment to note how much I have enjoyed the Haydn course. I look forward to checking out additional courses. Do you have a favorite one of yours? (sorry not sure if someone asked this already)

GREENBERG: Kasey: my favorite course is usually the last one I completed. However, I will admit to a great affection for my Shostakovich bio because it took me so long to convince TGC to make it and because of the history wrapped up in it.

ADAM: Any suggestions on a good beginner’s music theory book? Notation is certainly not a problem.

GREENBERG: Adam: While I’m sure they exist, I do not know of a single music theory book that by itself can teach well the language of music. I always recommend private teachers for this sort of thing, as a proper study in music theory requires ear training as well as written exercises.

BRAD: I have dearly enjoyed all your courses, esp those on Beethoven, and have learned a great deal from you. Thank you! I would love to see a course, even if a short one, focusing on and looking at piano quartets/quintets/trios as a survey. I would love for example to hear your take on the likes of Beethoven’s ghost trio.

GREENBERG: Brad: my next course will be the poorly named (but well-intentioned) “23 Greatest Chamber Works” in which I will focus on exactly the repertoire you name.

KEVIN: And can’t it be the 31 Greatest Chamber Works?

GREENBERG: Kevin: frankly, I’d prefer “The 47 Greatest . . .” This is a case where I create what I’m asked to create.

MARK: Dr. G, do you have any experience as a composer in using midi, sequencers/digital audio workstations and sound libraries? Thanks.

GREENBERG: Mark: I am a complete Luddite when it comes to such stuff. I use Finale for notation, but otherwise I’m a pencil-and-music-paper person.

GEORGE: Would you consider a short course (perhaps a-la “Great Composers” style) on Handel? I’ve just discovered his keyboard suites and have fallen in love.

GREENBERG: George: we have had four additional “Great Masters” courses planned for years: Handel, Schubert, Chopin, and Dvorak. Hopefully, TGC will put them on the docket sooner than later.

GUEST: Was always curious: the ‘greatest orchestral works’ course–the omission of Bruckner entirely?–the 7th & 8th symphonies alone being monumental harmonically & historically–but Brucknerr omitted entirely? I so admire and appreciate your insights–I now look forward to long road trips just to hear your courses over the speakers uninterrupted. A heartfelt thank U. Jerry

GREENBERG: Bruckner. Alas, I will admit to not being a great Bruckner fan. No doubt this is my loss. One of my best pals in grad school – a wonderful guy named Steven Parkaney (who died all-too-young) – was a Bruckner freakazoid, and we used to argue about his music deep into the night. Perhaps I will wizen up some day (as Steve used to tell me I would) and do a Bruckner course.

DOUG: I’d like a course on Messiaen.

GREENBERG: Doug: the newly released “23 Greatest Solo Piano Works” has not a single Messiaen piece, thanks to the Messiaen estate, which refuses to license his music for such use. It makes no sense whatsoever, but there you have it.

ED KALISH: I always feel a bit guilty about using “Finale” for composition, although it works so well. I fear that perhaps the “medium” influences the “message”.

GREENBERG: Ed: I used to pay copyists thousands of $’s to typeset my works. With Finale (or Sibelius) we can all do it ourselves. Given the savings, I’m happy to run the risk of letting the medium influence the message!

JIM CLEVELAND: It seems a shame that 20th and 21st century compositions are considered less “accessible” than earlier works. It’s the music of our time. Even the Cleveland Orchestra is guilty of ignoring, to a great degree, composers of our time. I understand the economics of it because I have been in the arts all my life but listeners’ affinity for the familiar is no excuse. What do think, Bob?

GREENBERG: Jim Cleveland: you, sir, are a man after my own heart. To my mind, performing organizations are not part of the entertainment “industry” but artistic organizations that should perform a complete gamut of music. But I am naive, and as costs have gone up and institutional and governmental resources have dwindled, our orchestras have become utterly market-driven, unwilling to challenge an audience they fear will abandon them.

DONNA F.: It is a pity that these estates are so small minded. I have purchased composers because Bob recommended their music – but if he can’t play it then we won’t think of doing that. I am not a great fan of 20th century music. So I am looking forward to the chamber music course. Do you have any pre-listening recommendations to get us ready for it?

GREENBERG: Donna: I would recommend that you start with the Brahms recommended earlier. Add to that the Schubert and Dvorak piano quintets, Mendelssohn’s string octet and Schubert’s string quintet. All desert island works.

ADAM: Did you come up with the idea of “Word Scores” yourself, or has someone else used this or a similar idea. I find them very enlightening, even though I am capable of reading music notation.

GREENBERG: Adam: the WordScores were my idea, although I’m sure others have done like things.

GUEST: Just reading Leonard Slatkins ‘Business of Conducting’–can’t recommend enough–don’t let the title fool you. Maestro Lenny once commented on Bruckner: “…..I just don’t get it…”. I’m fascinated how it draws or repels. Have U ever read Arthur Abell’s “Talks with Great Composers” particularly the exchange with Brahms and Joachim? If so–curious of your take. Jerry

GREENBERG: Jerry: I do not know it but will seek it out.

ED KALISH: In your treatment of Bach, was there some particular reason you didn’t launch into the Mass in b-minor? Isn’t it considered to be a sort of Mt. Everest in musical composition…unmatched?

GREENBERG: Ed: If I were to make the course today I would indeed launch into the Mass.

SANDRA: What would you say the most important skills, approaches, and personality traits (as well as anything else significant) are for teaching intelligent, interested adults who might not have much of a music background (yet)? Thank you for any thoughts.

GREENBERG: Sandra: I think one key is to avoid too much terminology and jargon. Another is to build on what an adult already knows and understands: meaning something of life and history. I learned to teach by teaching adults, which forced me to realize that music – like everything else in our whacky world – must be understood in the larger social and cultural context.

MICHEL: A last praise before the end of the chat, sorry if it makes you unbearable when you go home tonight! What I find amazing with you is that you spoon feed me what I need to know at times; and yet I always feel respected as a student. In the fundamentals of music I love how you explain that you cannot explain things sequentially, that the topic is circular and we students will have to go through the class again in order to hope to understand.

GREENBERG: Michel: thank you for your kind words. I am, unfortunately, already unbearable and I am, as well, already at home (I’m sitting in my home office/studio).

GUEST: Professor- any suggestions on how to get apprehensive teenagers to start exploring the world of music?

GREENBERG: Take apprehensive teenagers to a live orchestral concert. Sit as close to the front as you can. Get there in time to read the program notes. Let them experience the thrill up close and personal.

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley.
His lecture series How to Listen to and Understand Opera is available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.