Great Course: Music as a Mirror of History

Join us for the second class of our Great Courses series begins on June 10th. This class will be led by Activity director Brandy in the Den on the 2nd and 4th Monday’s of each month at 1:30pm for the summer of 2019.

…In Self-Reliance and Other Essays, the always quotable Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The true poem is the poet’s mind; the true ship is the ship-builder. In the man we should see the reason for the last flourish and tendril of his work.” To this, we might add: The true musical composition is the composer. The creator and his or her creation are not divisible. A creation, whatever it might be, is to some unique degree, a reflection of its creator, who in turn is shaped by the time and place in which he or she lives. The individual composer, an individual composition, a particular time and place: Together, they constitute a symbiotic, indivisible trifecta.

At the most general level, a composer’s environment shapes his musical style, meaning the generalized musical vocabulary and expressive parameters of his work. But sometimes, specific historical events shape the creation and content of a piece of music, and that’s what this survey is about: music written in direct response to contemporary historical events. As such, this will be a course about connections: the connections between composers and historical events—events that shaped the composers’ lives and inspired the creation of the works under study.

For example, in one lecture, we will focus on the events surrounding the composition of a piano sonata entitled From the Street 1.X.1905 (“the first of October 1905”) by Leoš Janáček. Janáček was born and lived in Moravia, which is today the eastern region of the Czech Republic. He was a rabid Czech/Moravian nationalist, and his nationalism was intensified by occupation: At the time he grew up, all Czech lands, including Moravia, were controlled by a German-speaking ruling class.

Janáček’s sonata was composed in response to an anti-German protest in Brno, the capital of Moravia. During the protest, German troops attacked the unarmed protesters and killed a 20-year-old Moravian carpenter. In order to provide historical context for the protest that inspired Janáček’s sonata, our discussion will range all over the temporal map. It will start with the German dismantling of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, the brutality suffered by the Czechs during the Second World War, and the revenge exacted on the German-speaking Czech minority after the war. The lecture will then range backward to 1918 and 1919 to observe the creation of the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia from what had been the Austrian Empire. We’ll then go even further back, to the forcible “Germanization” of Czech lands in the 1620s and 1630s. Finally, we will move on to the Czech national revival of the 19th century, which so powerfully affected Janáček and his music.

We’ll take the same approach as we study the works of numerous other composers, including Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, and many others. Instead of dissecting how classical masterpieces work as music per se, we’ll explore the ways in which history inspired the creation of certain musical works—and how those works interpreted and memorialized the history that inspired them. In this course, current events, culture, and art collide to provide a fascinating interdisciplinary look at a unique musical canon.