Great Piano Works Explained

Great Piano Works Explained coverGreat Piano Works Explained
Catherine Kautsky, DMA
Lawrence University
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
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or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

This course covers the entire history of the piano. It begins with Bach and ends with twenty-first century music. Instructor Catherine Kautsky is an accomplished pianist, so she not only provides the history but also samples of the music. She obviously loves what she does and has a warm smile. In fact, I’ve never seen a Great Courses instructor smile so much.

Kautsky begins with Bach, explaining that Bach wrote before the time of the modern piano, so his music, written for instruments like the harpsichord, would have sounded rather different in his time. She goes on to Hayden and Mozart, and then to Beethoven, whose instrument was much closer to the modern piano. From there she treats the romantics, including the likes of Schubert and Schumann. She discusses (and plays) Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt, and then proceeds to the Russian pianists. Reaching the twentieth century, she explains Schoenberg, Berg, and Debussy, then Ives, Prokofiev, and Bartok. She concludes with lectures on marginalized composers and composers writing in the current century.

Our instructor not only talks about the good qualities of classical music, but its shortcomings. She devotes a lecture to the plight of woman composers, the only lecture in which I did not see her smile. She discusses Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) and explains that while she was permitted to perform (and she had quite the career as a performer) she was given short shrift as a composer, even though she was very capable, and her husband admired her work. Kautsky also discusses Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, another woman who did not get the credit she deserved.

In her lecture on marginalized composers she discusses Ruth Crawford Seeger, married to Pete Seeger’s father. Seeger wanted to compose but gave it up to raise her children. By the time her children were grown and she was ready to go back to composing she had cancer and died before she could produce anything. Florence Price, on the other hand, was an African American woman who met with some success.

I enjoyed most of the lectures and the music, though I could have done without her complete rendition of Francis Poulenc’s retelling of the Babar the Elephant story, something she admits can easily be seen as a colonialist parable. I could, however, have benefited from an introduction to the technical side of music. Kautsky talks a lot about notes, chords, and scales, assuming knowledge that I don’t have.

That said, Great Piano Works Explained is both entertaining and informative.

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