Musical History MOOC

Course: From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance
School: Curtis Institute of Music (PA) through Coursera (free)
Instructors: Jonathan Coopersmith, David Ludwig
There are two goals for the course. The first is to understand a general survey of the development of Western classical music through the ages. By better understanding each piece we cover, you should arrive at the second and more important goal, which is to develop the skills and tools to research and understand other pieces of music on your own.

I signed up for this course on impulse, at the last minute, thinking it might make a nice relaxing complement to an intense schedule for this fall. As such, I decided going in I would approach it as “recreational learning” and would only do the assignments that interested me.

A lot of music, particularly that aimed at the non-musical public, tries to end on a “high note,” and this course certainly did; I fell in love in the last week, much to my surprise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Each week covered a different historical period. An overview of the pertinent social and musical history was followed by a biography of the featured composer and a “closer look” at a representative work, with detailed analysis of what happened musically in each performance. I especially liked that the pieces chosen weren’t the same things everyone’s heard a thousand times. For example: instead of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which I dearly love), we looked at “the chaconne” from his violin partita; instead of a familiar Beethoven symphony, the Grosse Fuge was featured. I’m sure the experienced musicians in the class were familiar with these pieces, but they were new to me, and I enjoyed hearing them in the context of learning more about how they work. I could’ve found the Grosse Fuge on Youtube, but learning why it was a big deal is a different matter.

Of the seven periods (ancient and medieval, baroque, classical, early and late romantic, modern, post-modern), I expected to enjoy the first three the most; I’ve always had a fondness for Gregorian chants, motets, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. I did particularly enjoy the early-music week (I’m a fan of old stuff), but what surprised me was the thrill I found in the final week of post-modern music (what can I say, I like new stuff, too).

The highlight of the last week was an interview with contemporary American composer George Crumb. He made high-concept music seem perfectly reasonable. Too many times, artists talk in their own conceptual language, and leave the listener feeling stupid for not understanding (to wit, John Cage); that wasn’t the case here. I was quite enamored with the idea of “extended technique” – using instruments in atypical ways, such as singing into a flute, or strumming the strings of the piano instead of pressing the keys), and his graphic notation of the kind of new music is fascinating. I can’t say I’d put Vox Balaenae on my playlist, but it’s like conceptual poetry: understanding what’s going into it is incredible.

The course consisted of three main elements: video lectures, weekly quizzes, and three peer-assessment assignments. I watched every lecture and listened to each performance, and I did fine on all the quizzes, but I didn’t do the peer assessment assignments (which are ongoing as I post this – you can still enroll in the course if you’re interested in the materials, though of course you won’t get “grades”). The first one required the same kind of detailed musical analysis of technical details – modulations, theme developments, form – as the music theory course I took this summer, and, as before, I just didn’t want to work that hard. I would’ve liked to have done the second and third assignments – a biographical approach to the musical impact of a particular composer, and program notes – but since I’d already accepted I wouldn’t be “completing” the course with a certificate (I actually did earn a certificate, though not a Distinction mark), and because I needed the time in other courses, I skipped them as well.

I instead made additional effort to be more active on the message boards. I was virtually silent in the first weeks – I’m easily intimidated by those with more technical knowledge than I, and there’s a limit to how much “Do you like this? Oh, listen here…” I had time for. The staff did provide some interesting discussion questions and I participated in those with great enjoyment. Staff was active on the boards, always a good sign.

On the frivolous side, I give Curtis an award for best use of a logo in a video open on Coursera (though not necessarily all MOOCdom; I was also quite taken with one from an edX course). The music playing over the logo changed week to week to include the piece we would be studying = though it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that.

One of the best things about MOOCs is also what detractors see as a major flaw: a student can put as much or as little effort into them as desired (or as one has time for), which may or may not include “completing” the course (obtaining a certificate). Since I didn’t do the peer-assessment assignments, I didn’t complete (correction: turns out I earned a Certificate of Achievement after all, just didn’t get the “distinction.” ok). That’s fine with me; does anyone take a non-credit music course for a certificate? I enjoyed the course, and learned more about music; for me, it was a success.


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