Music History: Learning More Than Music From the Masters
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
If you’re serious about musical study and stick with it long enough, whether learning to play piano, violin or some other instrument, you will eventually encounter music history and be expected to learn about a number of composers – their lives, works and contributions to the world of music.
At the elementary level of the public school system, music history may be incorporated here and there into the general music class. (Perhaps your child has come home exclaiming, “Did you know Beethoven was deaf?”) If you’re studying under the certificate program of the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), a recognized leader in music education, music history will be peppered into each level of music theory. As you reach the more advanced levels of your instrument, entire courses on music history will become co-requisites for achieving comprehensive RCM certificates at these levels. And, of course, if you are studying music at the university level, you can expect an in-depth examination of music history.
If you’re like most people, you might be thinking, why do I need to learn about music history? I just want to play the music – I don’t need to learn about the composer, do I? I, too, once thought this. While I always enjoyed hearing tidbits of music history from my teachers during lessons, I questioned whether, as a piano student, music history was really necessary.
The standard response of teachers over the years - that knowing the composer, era and culture in which the composer lived sheds light on how the composer intended the piece to be played and what influenced the composer, and helps us interpret the piece and shape our own playing of it – made sense but was not all that inspiring, frankly. It just seemed like scads of extra work for a little interpretive gain. And besides, why couldn’t I simply play a piece the way I wanted?
However, when I eventually dug into required music history material, my reluctance quickly shifted into fascination.
Did you know that … J.S. Bach was an orphan, Handel’s father forbade him from learning to play any instrument, Beethoven’s father was an abusive alcoholic, Mozart was fired from his job, Haydn busked on the street to make ends meet, and Vivaldi was a priest whose music (most of it) would be cloistered away in one way or another for nearly two hundred years after his death? Are you wondering how, with such enormous gifts resting on their shoulders, they managed to get through life at all, never mind to be named among the unsurpassed music masters of all time? Herein is the fascination of music history. They sound like ordinary people, don’t they?
You may be endowed with the greatest musical gift and talents the world has ever seen and be capable of leaving a breathless musical legacy of beauty and innovation, but if you cannot persevere through the trials and difficulties of life, are not prepared for hard work, criticism, or to be unrecognized, unappreciated or even mistreated while retaining unswerving devotion to your craft, no one will know about your gift, not even you. This was my greatest “take home” from studying music history.
I was profoundly inspired, not only for my own musical journey, but for life as well. As I read numerous accounts of composers’ lives and briefly studied some of their most famous works, I felt as though I had personally known them, and even experienced a sense of loss and grief as I read accounts of how each died. And I was left with an abiding respect for their musical contributions and a thirst to learn all I can from them.
Why can’t I just play the piece the way I want? Looking back, I can see how uninformed such a question is. Not that we cannot play something in a new way – innovation is at the very heart of music - but it starts by studying and understanding the original and, to some extent, humbling ourselves to learn from others; then we are in a better position to assess our own interpretation or expression of someone else’s work.
It only takes trying to compose one or two bars of music, even if you have a gift for composition, to discover how little you know and how much is owed to the music giants of the past such as J.S. Bach. The world has yet to equal these geniuses. Their works are unequalled and remain the textbooks that advance music forward to this day.
Ready to be inspired by the life and work of some composers? Who will we study first in the “More than Music” series? Check Bach next month to find out!