A Clear Look at Classical Mythology in the Old Classroom Method

A Clear Look at Classical IMG_20150613_0001Mythology in the Old Classroom Method

   Among the many Teaching Company sets in my collection, there are a few that I can hear time after time with increasing enjoyment. And among those are four of the sets featuring the Classical scholar Elizabeth Vandiver. The one I chose to introduce to my readers is the DVD set 243, “Classical Mythology.”

Vandiver spends the first of 24 lectures with a general introduction to the subject and the next two defining “myth” and exploring the use of myths in different cultures. Her most telling point is that the “truth” of a belief is simply a myth to an outsider and a fact to the insider. (She uses the Eucharist as a familiar example.)

Talks 4-11 concentrate on specific myths (as we might as well call them) about Creation, the Olympians, various immortals and mortals, Demeter, Persephone, views of Death, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Dionysos, and Aphrodite. Talk 12 is about the much-debated “Great Goddess.”

Vandiver, an excellent teacher

The 12 talks on the second DVD are about several heroes and half-gods, Theseus, myth and history, the Trojan War, the highly dysfunctional House of Atreus, the change of vengeance to justice, the Furies, Oedipus, and various monsters. The last three talks consider the Roman version of some Greek tales, especially those of Ovid, and a general conclusion.

Now this could be heavy stuff, but Vandiver pulls it off nicely with a good sense of humor that she does not overdo and clear explanations. My only complaint is a lack of visuals, which would have been so helpful to the viewer if included.

The most valuable aspect of this set, other than knowing and understanding the tales that form the basis of so much of our literature, is that it leads to better understanding of where our own beliefs have originated. Such enlightenment just might create a respect for  beliefs other than our own.


Bernstein Explains Music on Vintage Omnibus Episodes

A-OmnibusBernstein Explains Music on Vintage Omnibus Episodes

   Back in the 1950s, there a program called “Omnibus,” hosted by one Alistair Cook, flourished on television. The purpose of this show was to educate in a way that entertained but did not talk down to its viewers.

It seems that Leonard Bernstein appeared at least eight times to talk about some aspect of music; and E1 Entertainment, as part of their Archive of American Television, has gathered those eight talks in a boxed set of 4 DVDs titled “Leonard Bernstein, Omnibus.” To any one who loves music in any of its aspects, this collection is a must.

There are two talks on each disc. The first is “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” in which Bernstein uses copies of the composer’s original thoughts and reworkings and inserts them into the final version to show how they weaken it. It is both scholarly and accessible and should serve as a model for all such analyses.

It is followed by “The World of Jazz,” in which Bernstein, who was using jazz in his own Broadway shows, explains its elements and attractions. “The Art of Conducting” reveals the skills and insights a conductor must have just to conduct the opening bars of Brahms’ First Symphony.

The segment called “American Musical Comedy” appealed to me the most, since I lecture on that very subject. Here his main thesis is that stage music began with opera and vaudeville at the extremes, with such formats as the revue, operetta and musical comedy in between, and that after “Show Boat” the distinctions began to blur. In short, the (even then) current musicals were tending towards operatic treatment.

“Introduction to Modern Music” is concerned with the new approaches to the older schools of music. Bernstein aims, not to convert his audience to (say) dissonance, but to make them understand what it is, how it is used, and why.

I was happy to learn that many people find a lot of “The Music of J.S. Bach” boring, because I always felt guilty about doing just that. Thanks to the Maestro, I now know why I do so. But now I also feel I have a better understanding of Bach’s music.

Some will find the opening minutes of “What Makes Opera Grand?” a little disappointing, especially since the original telecast did not use subtitle translations for the foreign language lyrics and those supplied by E1 Entertainment do not show any lyrics in any language. But most of the program is given over to the second act of “La Boheme” in a neat format. Some actors speak an English translation of a segment of the act, and then the scene is done again, sung in Italian with full costumes and orchestration. The conclusions are a bit simplistic but the idea is a good one.

The final segment is simply Bernstein conducting the first two parts of Handel’s “Messiah” without any commentaries. It is interesting to watch, but the 1950s sound makes listening a bit of a chore.

Again, this is a set to cherish for many reasons, for which E1 Entertainment is to be thanked yet again.


Peabody Expert Illuminates the American Musical


A-Broadway MusicalsPeabody Expert Illuminates the American Musical

   The much admired Teaching Company has several CD and DVD sets about classical music. However, they are all bested by “Great American Music: Broadway Musicals” on four DVDs. (The course number is 7318.) The instructor is Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute and a mighty fine teacher is he.

The 16 topics of 45 minutes each cover popular stage musicals from the Minstrel Shows that set the foundation, right through the Reviews and Book Musicals, and up to the “present,” which was 2006 when these talks were recorded.

messengerMessenger is a double threat to all competition. First, he is a fine speaker with a good sense of humor, and he never talks down to his audience. Second, he is an excellent pianist who can illustrate a musical point simply and clearly (although his singing does not quite meet the level of his other talents).

His opening talk, “The Essence of the Musical,” prepares us for all that is to come. While apologizing for “The Minstrel Era,” he does point out the benefits those shows afforded to black artists who never would have otherwise attracted such large white audiences. The tale of the rise and downfall of two composers, one white and one black, is heartbreaking.

“The Evolution of the Verse/Chorus Song” explains the nature of all the popular songs that use a verse to set up the situation and a chorus that is repeated often enough so that the audience can join in.

“The Ragtime Years,” “The Vaudeville Era” and “Tin Pan Alley” continue to follow the fortunes of popular songs with respect to their formats and performances by different artists, many of whom are heard in vintage recordings.

Broadway a long time ago

Later on, special attention is given to Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, who are contrasted; George Gershwin; and the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The latter two ruled over the “Golden Age of Musical Theater (1950s)”; but even they could not withstand the new sounds when “Rock ‘n’ Roll Reaches Broadway.”

The last talk is about “Big Bucks and Long Runs,” a title that speaks for itself.

The PBS stations have recently rerun a series about Broadway Musicals with all sorts of Big Star commentators and spectacular videos. Messenger does it all and does it better with a podium and a piano. I have watched this set three times and heard it as many on my car tape player and now my iPod. I cannot recommend it too highly