Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Story Telling

Tomorrow, on January 17, I will release for download the first of what I hope will be many “webcourses”: “Mozart in Vienna” (16 lectures) and “The Music of the Twentieth Century” (18 lectures). With your kind indulgence, I will dedicate the bulk of this post to my philosophy of teaching as encapsulated in two words: “story telling”. It is a teaching philosophy that has been forty years in the making. (My first classroom-teaching gig was at an all-girls private high school in Pottersville, New Jersey called the Purnell School in 1977. I learned more that year – about teaching, about girls/women, and about myself – than in any five-year period before or since. It’s a story I will tell, but not today!)

Before moving on, let us – with unfortunate rapidity – put some date sensitive info on the table.

On this day in 1728, the Italian opera composer Niccoló Piccinni was born in the southern Italian city of Bari.

On this day in 1739, George Frederick Handel’s oratorio “Saul” received its premiere at the Haymarket Theater in ye merrye-olde London.

On this day in 1864, the scoundrel Anton Felix Schindler died in Frankfurt am Main. From 1822 to 1825, and then again from 1826-1827, Schindler was Beethoven’s unpaid secretary and factotum. Schindler’s biography of Beethoven, published in 1840, was given tremendous credence because of his close personal relationship with the great (if insufferable) van Beethoven. Unfortunately, Schindler’s biography is a sham: he lied about his relationship with Beethoven, twisted the truth and, as often as not, just plain made stuff up. To this day, we are still trying to separate fact from fiction thanks to Schindler’s criminally deceitful “biography” of Beethoven. But Schindler’s infamy didn’t stop there; oh no. During Beethoven’s final illness in 1827, Schindler stole many of Beethoven’s possessions – eyeglasses, inkwells, pieces of clothing etc. – and sold them to collectors; he appropriated most of Beethoven’s 400 “conversation books” and destroyed many (if not most) of them because they contained critical references to him. Of the books that survived he tore out and destroyed hundreds of pages and falsified a like number of entries. Happy death-day, Herr Schindler. How’s the weather down there?

Let Me Tell You A Story

In his book The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel wrote:

“God made Man because He loves stories.”

Presumably created in god’s image, we Homo sapiens love stories as well. For tens of thousands of years before the invention of writing (about 5000 years ago), our ancestors sat around their fires telling stories about hunts, heroes, and lovers; about gods and goddesses; about the creation of the sun, moon, and the stars.

Such shared stories came to anchor entire cultures in the guise of religions and national myths. But even more, stories contain and illuminate the very fabric of our existence: through analog and metaphor we discover ourselves in stories and, as storytellers, our individual experience is rendered universal.

Our species has been blessed/cursed with the understanding that we live at the edge of chaos and that in the end each of us will die. In the same way our brains organize tiny bits of light into coherent images, so our brains superimpose narrative structures on the events, the chaos, and the terminal mystery of our lives.

Perceived this way, storytelling – like language and its sibling, music – is not something we’re taught to do but something we are wired to do. Evolution is, after all, ruthlessly utilitarian, and I would suggest that like language, storytelling (and for that matter, music and making and consuming art in general) is a survival skill: a powerful mechanism that allows us to attribute pattern and meaning to what might otherwise be considered random information. Stories allow us to communicate more effectively; they intensify and render meaningful what might on the surface appear to be unrelated experiences; they personalize information and allow us to vicariously achieve wish fulfillment and even find escape from the regularity of our own lives in a manner beneficial to our survival.

Writing is story telling. Composing is story telling. And teaching – when done properly – is story telling as well.

As I have come to understand it, teaching music demands the telling of a number of different yet intersecting stories: the personal story behind a piece of music (the life and personality of its composer); the cultural, spiritual, and economic milieu in which the composer lived (a milieu that determines the “musical style” of the composer’s music); and the actual bricks-and-mortar content of a given piece of music (music analysis).

It is the symbiosis of these three elements that determines the meaning of a given piece of music. And subjective though “meaning” might be, illuminating meaning – be it absolute, metaphoric, autobiographic, programmatic, etc. – is what I consider my most important task as a teacher. In order to describe the symbiosis that determines that meaning, I have had to learn how to tell a good story.

In the end, it all comes down to one word – context – and my absolute belief that context is everything and that everything has meaning.

This is what I believe, and this is what informs my teaching.