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« Classical Symposium | Main | Breillat Alert »

October 15, 2004

Lifetime Learning Update

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

More temptations for lifetime-learning junkies.

  • I'm blessed with ears that crave Western-classical-music sounds, but I'm cursed with a mind that struggles to comprehend what the hell's going on in there. Sad to say, but while at a classical-music concert here's the kind of chatter that runs through my head:

    Hey, I think I recognize that tune! Which may mean that this is one of those "theme and variation" sections, right? Or was I daydreaming for a while there? ... Hey, I'm not sure I can tell which key this thing is in any longer! Which may mean that we're in the "development" section, right? Or was I daydreaming again? ... Hey, things are getting energetic around here! Which may mean that the climax is approaching, right? But I've only counted two movements so far, and don't most of these things have three movements? Or even four? Damn, I must have been daydreaming for a while there ...

    As a consequence, while I love plain ol' listening to the music, I also appreciate being taken through it by the hand. Lucky me, The Wife has a first-rate classical-music mind, zero snobbery about her knowledge and insights, and tons of patience.

    But I can't turn to her for coaching all the time. So I've found and developed a shelfful of history-and-technique resources. D. F. Tovey is Da Man where classical-music analysis is concerned; his many volumes of Essays in Musical Analysis are major ear-and-brain-openers.

    But they're also a demanding go, so I've spent more time with some accessible works. Robert Winter's CD-ROMs offer biographical and historical context as well as bar-by-bar musical analyses -- with visuals accompanied by straightforward English -- of how the pieces he discusses are put together. They're phenonemally good; they're also, as far as I can tell, all out of print, though I see that used copies of his Beethoven disc can be bought here. The Teaching Company's Robert Greenberg is sensational too, and his many music-history lecture series can be enjoyed as simply as audiobooks -- in the car or while exercising, for example. Richard Fawkes' Naxos productions, The History of Opera and The History of Classical Music, are also first-rate; I blogged about them here.

    A new addition to my shelf is Jeremy Siepmann's CD-based audiobook, Life and Works: Josef Haydn. Given that I didn't get much out of Siepmann's analysis of The Four Seasons, I was pleasantly surprised by how helpful and enjoyable I found this package. Perhaps Siepmann is simply more comfortable presenting classical music in historical context than he is presenting analyses of it.

    In any case, it's a lovely work. Siepmann delivers about as much Haydn biography as I needed to hear, spares us the usual scholarly digressions, quotes from a generous number of original documents (diaries, letters, reviews), provides a decent amount of historical context, and supplies first-class musical examples. He's a gentlemanly and gracious guide; The Wife, who listened to the discs with me, assures me that his musical tastes and observations are solid too.

    Siepmann's lowkey worldliness is a relief; he's able to both acknowledge Haydn's genius and take note of the crucial role that audiences, patrons, the press, friends, and family play in the creation of great work. It's a special pleasure of this audiobook that Haydn turns out to be lovable -- one of western art's Really Good Guys: generous, never petty, immensely hard-working (more than a hundred symphonies, plus much, much else), genuinely grateful for his gifts, delighted at any success, frank about his emotions, and helpful to younger artists. Born into the working class, he died the most celebrated composer in Europe.

  • Barnes and Nobles' Portable Professor series is providing The Teaching Company with some competition. Teaching Company fan that I am, I was curious to see how the Portable Professors measure up. So far I've been through two of their packages, and the answer is: quite respectably.

    Timothy Shutt's Foundations of Western Thought traces the influence of Greek, Hebraic, and Roman civs on Western culture. F.E. Peters' One God, Three Faiths is an exposition of the three monotheistic, "Abrahamic" (ie., descended from Abraham) religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Both profs are helpful, efficient, and enthusiastic, and both courses are staggeringly well-organized. Kudos to the profs -- as well as, presumably, their editors. It ain't as easy as many people seem to think to pull together straightforward, entertaining, brief overviews of immense subjects. These are both ultra-basic Civilization-101 courses. But, as someone who can never get enough of rehearsing (and re-rehearsing) the basics, I found them fresh and friendly.

    I'm now partway through another Portable Professor, Frances Titchener's To Rule Mankind and Make the World Obey, a history of Rome, and it's a winner too. I like it better, in fact, than I liked the Teaching Company's History of Rome, which I wasn't able to finish. So I'm psyched about this series, and have already bought a couple of other titles: Colin McGinn on philosophy and Richard Freedman on -- oh, joy! -- Western classical music.

I made all these purchases before vowing to abstain from buying media products for a month, by the way. So no one needs to worry about how I'm doing. It's OK, it really is -- I'm doing fine. In fact, so far I've only fallen off the wagon once.

But I gotta say, it felt sooooo good ...



posted by Michael at October 15, 2004


Obviously, you're doomed. I think you need to get in touch with On-Line Purchasers Anonymous.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 15, 2004 12:57 PM

So what exactly lured you off the wagon? Was it the cultural equivalent of a fine Calvados or a not-so-fine Thunderbird? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on October 15, 2004 11:59 PM

FvB -- It's time for someone to stage an intervention, that's for sure.

Dr. Weevil -- Good to see you dropping by. [Aside to others: now Dr. Weevil's a real blogger. Oops, why did I not have him on our blogroll? Apologies, and fixed.] I wish my tumble off the wagon was for the sake of something interesting or glamorous. But I was in Memphis, and wanted to snag a good-seeming underground guide to Memphis while we were there -- it seemed unlikely we'd ever find it elsewhere. And, OK, I do have to admit that I urged The Wife to buy a couple of Sun Studios CDs that I really wanted, so I could have them without having been the one to buy them. But aside from those transgressions, I've been clean, I really have. And it hasn't been easy.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 16, 2004 10:55 AM

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