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March 04, 2004

Histories of Music

Dear Friedrich --

How many subjects would you say you're interested in beyond the Intro-to, 101 or 102 level? In my case, the answer is "very few." On the other hand, tons and tons of subjects interest me right up through the intro-to level.

In fact, where some subjects go -- econ, philosophy, Western art music -- I'm such fan of good introductory surveys that I go through example after example. I just love a good introductory text. I've been through probably 20 intros to economics, and as many intros to philosophy and Western art music too. Where some subjects go, I don't know why, I seem to get intense pleasure out of being marched through the basics all over again.

Jokes permitted at this moment about what a thick skull and a slow brain I must have.

Funny consequence #1 of this habit of mine: I'll never be anything like an expert where econ, philosophy or Western art music are concerned. Funny consequence #2: I know the basics of these subjects pretty well by now. Funny consequence #3: I've become a connoisseur of well-done intros-to.

And, hey, I've got a brand-new tip. Until now, my favorite intros to Western art music were two Robert Greenberg audio series for The Teaching Company: his How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (buyable here) and his How to Listen to and Understand Opera (buyable here). Greenberg's an amazing teacher and lecturer, and they're both sensationally good packages. As always with the Teaching Company's products: buy them only when they're on sale. Not to worry, though, because they go on sale two or three times a year. When they're on sale they're fantastic bargains.

But I've just finished going through a couple of Naxos packages that I think would make even better first-times-through -- Richard Fawkes' History of Classical Music, and his History of Opera. (Amazon is out of stock, but you can buy copies from Audiobooks online, here.) Like Greenberg, Fawkes is organized and helpful. His text is beautifully read by Robert Powell, and the musical examples are well-selected. Where Greenberg's an enthusiast and a showman, Fawkes is suave and lowkey, yet friendly and approachable.

The big advantage Fawkes' intros have as first-times-through is simple -- they're much shorter than Greenberg's. Sounds silly and basic, I suppose, but it matters. To move through all that material so fast, Fawkes has to present it from far, far overheard. That's very helpful in terms of helping you get a sense of where the landmarks are, how the elements interrelate, and what the general outlines are like.

And, like Greenberg, Fawkes is strikingly good at something I admire a lot: summing up the significance of a work, an artist, or an era quickly, in a very short space, and doing so in a way that's clear and vivid yet that actually does justice to what's being described. This may sound easy; it's anything but. Imagine trying to explain Italian neorealism -- the look, the feel, the facts, and the significance of it -- to an interested know-nothing, and having to do so in 100 words or less. It takes a lot of focus, concentration and clarity. Yet Greenberg and Fawkes manage the trick over and over again. Hats off to both of them.

I'll never be a classical-music specialist, god knows. (The Wife, on the other hand, is supersmart and knowledgeable about the subject. Lucky me.) But -- and FWIW -- having been through an awful lot of intros to the subject, my tip for anyone who's curious about Western art music yet has been hanging back out of uncertainty about where to start is to buy Fawkes, and to do it today. Each of his intros -- which are on tape or CD, so they're easily listened-to while walking or driving -- is about 5-6 hours long. Then surf on over to the Teaching Company, buy the Greenberg lecture series, and go through them too. (As I recall, they're both 15-20 hours long.) Together, Fawkes 'n' Greenberg make an intro-to-Western-art-music that's the equal of any college music-history 101 class. Probably better than all but a few, come to think of it, as well as far more convenient -- and far cheaper too, of course.

Always eager to learn about good introductory surveys, of course. There must be a few I haven't gone through yet.



posted by Michael at March 4, 2004


Please fill us in on your favorite intros to other fields.

Posted by: Dan G on March 4, 2004 11:50 PM

Hi Dan -- Well, caveat emptor and all: I really don't know much about the subjects, but I may have some taste where intro-to books are concerned. For whatever that's worth.

A bunch of us gabbed about helpful intro-to economics books and tapes here. Tons of suggestions. My personal one is to start with two Timothy Taylor lectures series from The Teaching Company -- a history of economic thought, followed by his series called "Economics." Superclear, super-easy. Probably 'way too easy for people who are good at math and charts, but just right for English major types.

The books I've run across that I thought were especially fab philosophy intros were Bryan Magee's "The Story of Philosophy," Nigel Warburton's "Philsophy: the Basics," and Roger Scruton's "Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy," and his "Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture." But there are an awful lot of good philosphy intros out there, it seems to me.

Have you been through any good intros recently? I'm getting more interested in history these days ...

Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2004 10:26 AM

I don't think it's so strange to be interested in intro stuff. I like to read intro stuff myself (when I have the time) and I think what makes them so interesting is that the author or the teacher or the prof who's doing the intro is trying to make it sound interesting so people might decide to go into their field. And then when you get to more advanced fields--unless you're really motivated--most people drop them like like hot potatoes with the reasoning of "what's the point in learning all the details when the basics will get me through life just fine"?

Posted by: sya on March 5, 2004 12:28 PM

Yeah, that's it exactly. I don't know about you, but I was often appalled by how bad many intro classes in college were. Teachers gave 'em not in the spirit of "since this is probably your one chance to learn a bit about this subject, let's have fun and make sure we nail the basics good," but instead more like "I know you think you're good enough to become an expert, so I'm going to make it hard for you to get anything out of this." Like you were applying for admission to college all over again rather than taste-testing a subject. But that's another rant -- how so much of what profs teach (in the lib arts) is ... what you need in order to be a prof. Not preparation for life generally, but preparation for life as a prof. Patooie to that.

I also like the way doing an intro forces the author/lecturer/whoever to write clearly and accessibly, and to make generalizations that are useful and bold, yet comprehensible -- not something academics like to do. They love to hedge and complicate.

Hey, maybe part of what I like about the intro-to form is that it's agony for profs to do. The Revenge of the Ex-Student.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2004 01:14 PM

Michael asks: "Have you been through any good intros recently? I'm getting more interested in history these days ..."

Do you prefer your history sliced horizontally or vertically? 8-) More cogently, are you looking for a survey of everywhere at some time or somewhere for a long time?

For the everywhere-at-the-same-time slicing, you might try:

  • The "New Penguin Atlas of * History" (it's a series)
  • The Barnes and Noble "Historical Atlas of the * World" (another series).

I find that the maps help me to relate things both in time and space.

For the vertical, same-place-for-a-long-time slicing, I'd recommend (off the top of my head):

  • John Julius Norwich's, "A Short History of Byzantium" (only[!] 496 pages) or nearly anything else by Norwich
  • John Glubb's, "A Short History of the Arab Peoples"

I hope this was the sort of thing you were looking for. I don't have any suggestions about anything more general than that. It would be sort of like looking for a book covering "the arts". If you wanted something that discussed pentatonic-scale music, the Dutch masters, 19th century painted porcelain, and Modernist Architecture in a 200-page survey, you might have a bit of difficulty too. 8-)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on March 5, 2004 01:52 PM

Dammit Michael, you stole my thunder. I had an "In Praise of the Omnibus" post all ready to go -- well, half-ready -- and then I started working and stopped blogging, and then I reemerge and you come out with this. Dammit.

I will add that my favorite omnibus writer is Paul Johnson. He's the perfect guide to superficial knowledge of just about anything.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on March 7, 2004 06:57 PM

I have used Greenberg for the last couple of years. I heartily recommend How to Listen and Understand Great Music. But I also recommend Concert Masterworks for an in-depth examination of specific works (like Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto and Brahms' Violin Concerto, etc.) For a lighter, more biographical approach, the 8 disc sets on Mozart, Brahms, Liszt and the Schumanns, etc., are also great.
I actually teach some of these intro courses, but I usually teach art history courses. Lately I have been venturing into interdisciplinary courses, and for this Greenberg is indispensable for getting me to listen to music in the same way that I look at art.
I hope that I teach in the first way you note: as enthusiastically as Greenber. I hope to turn my students onto a whole new aspect of life.

Posted by: Susan Wadsworth on March 9, 2004 06:31 PM

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