by J.D. Roth
I have never learned to love opera, but I may be beginning to do so.
Inspired by last month’s book group selection — Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, which is, in part, about the life of a string quartet — I have eschewed my normal audiobooks in favor of Robert Greenberg’s Teaching Company course entitled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music.
The Teaching Company is an organization that provides outstanding college lectures on CD and DVD and other formats. To quote the company’s FAQ:
The Teaching Company brings engaging professors into your home or car through courses on DVD, CD, audio, and other formats. Since 1990, great teachers from the Ivy League, Stanford, Georgetown, and other leading colleges and universities have crafted two hundred courses for lifelong learners. We provide the adventure of learning without the homework or exams.
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music is both a music appreciation course and a music history course. It is long — forty-eight lectures of forty-five minutes each — but I love it. Greenberg is passionate about his material, and this enthusiasm is contagious. The course touches on early music, on the music of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. It delves into the Baroque Era, the Classical Era, and — my favorite — the Romantic Era. Tomorrow I will begin the last section, which covers music of the twentieth century.
A course like this allows the instructor to cherry-pick. Greenberg not only focuses his lectures on the best compositions (from the best composers) throughout history, but he also selects some of the finest recordings. The recording he uses for Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is bright and vibrant. In his choice for Beethoven’s fifth symphony, each instrument sounds marvelous and clear; I thrill to the deep thrum of the cellos.
It is Greenberg’s discussions of opera that have opened my mind. Opera has always seemed to me a pursuit for the wealthy. I have viewed it as the ultimate in highbrow entertainment. Apparently, this has not always been the case. In fact, it’s the opposite of what once was true. Originally, opera was music for the masses. Before the era of radio and television and motion pictures (and the internet), opera was the ultimate popular entertainment, a position it held for three hundred years.
During his lectures, Greenberg highlights an opera or two from each compositional period. From the early Baroque, for example, he features Henry Purcell‘s Dido and Aeneas. In particular, he discusses the well-known aria, “When I am laid in earth” (a.k.a “Dido’s Lament”). I say “well-known”, but I had never heard of it. What a shame. Listen and weep at its beauty. (Note: this is not the recording featured in the course.)
(Greenberg does not discuss Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but since Kris loves the Queen of the Night’s aria (“Die Höle Rach”), and since I have an mp3 handy, I’ll post it. I recently watched The Magic Flute on Discovery HD‘s Friday night opera lineup. This aria, in the context of the show, kicked major ass. The Queen of the Night is pissed. She gives her daughter a dagger and commands her to kill Sarastro, the Priest of the Sun.)
From the Romantic Era, the course includes “Una Voce Poco Fa” from Rossini‘s The Barber of Seville. Here I’ve posted tracks eight and nine from Greenberg’s lecture. Track eight features one recording of the bulk of the aria. Track nine features the full aria (including the introductory bits). Both tracks include some of Greenberg’s lecture.
The highlight of the course so far (for me, anyhow) has been The Wolf’s Glen scene from Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber. Drawn from a German opera of the Romantic Era, this music sounds absolutely modern. It is raw and powerful. It is dark and fantastic. It is filled with eerie malevolence. It is amazing. I listened to it on the drive to work today and it gave me chills not once, not twice, but three times. (No, the chills were not from the frozen air outside.) This is an astounding piece of work and I am shocked that I’ve not heard it before. The scene lasts for sixteen minutes, which is a long time, I know, but it’s worth listening to if you have the chance. The setup:
Kaspar has sold himself to the devil (who, in this case, takes the form of the wild huntsman named Zamiel). Kaspar’s time is running out. In order to gain more time, he plans to trade the life of his friend, Max. Kaspar brings Max to the Wolf’s Glen and together they mold seven magic bullets. The first six will go true to their mark, but the seventh will go where Zamiel wills it.
If this is opera, then sign me up. I want more. I guarantee I’ll be purchasing another Greenberg course, How to Listen to and Understand Opera.
Courses from The Teaching Company are expensive; they cost several hundred dollars on CD. However (and this is important), at least once every year, each course is marked down significantly. A $500 course like this one, for example, might be marked down to $140. I know that $140 for a college lecture series on CD might still seem expensive, but I believe this one has been worth every penny.
Other courses I have purchased include: Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living; Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality; The Roots of Human Behavior; The History of the English Language; and The Iliad of Homer. Earlier this year, another Metafilter reader noted my interest in Teaching Company lectures and shipped me a boatload of courses on history and philosophy. (Thanks, Lee!) I’ve managed to convert most of these from audiotape to mp3, and they’re on my iPod, ready to be audited.
I would love to share these lectures with you. Because they’re expensive, and because they’re good, I want them to get as much use as possible. If you have the time and the interest, please let me know. I will loan you whichever course suits your taste. Maybe you, too, will learn to love opera!
Updated: 21 November 2005