Neptune, the Mystic

Many years ago I wrote a short poem while listening to the final and most otherworldly section of The Planets by Gustav Holst: Neptune, the Mystic.

Here it is:

Neptune, the Mystic from The Planets by Gustav Holst
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley
Ambrosian Chorus, John McCarthy
Alto ALC 1013
The endless poetry of space
Sends shivers across my spine,
And there upon the threshold sounds
The now distant drone of time.
Music fills the spacecraft
Starlight fills the night,
And there upon the threshold think
I wonder, was I right?
David Oesper

 

The Planets was written by Holst between 1914 and 1916, and the premiere performance was at The Queen’s Hall, London, on September 29, 1918.  Adrian Boult conducted the orchestra in a private performance for about 250 invited guests.  The Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the London Blitz in 1941, seven years after Holst’s death in 1934.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and was considered to be the ninth planet until its controversial demotion by the IAU in 2006.  A number of composers have added a Pluto movement to The Planets (“Pluto, the Renewer” by Colin Matthews, for example), and even an improvised performance (“Pluto, the Unpredictable”) by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  I remember enjoying “Pluto, the Unknown” by American composer Peter Hamlin performed by the Des Moines Symphony in 1992, but unfortunately no recording of this work exists.

Gorgeous Grieg

Edvard Grieg (Photo EGM0270, Edvard Grieg Archives at the Bergen Public Library)

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is best known for his iconic Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, written in 1868 when the composer was just 24 years old, and his Peer Gynt suites, No. 1, op. 46 (1875, 1888), and No. 2, op. 55 (1875, 1891).  Like Tchaikovsky, Grieg had a gift for melody.

Grieg once wrote, “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights.  I only wanted to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.”  With this in mind, you will find no better introduction to some of the other gorgeous music that Grieg wrote than Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset conducting Sweden’s Malmö Symphony Orchestra on Naxos 8.572403.

https://cps-static.rovicorp.com/3/JPG_500/MI0003/853/MI0003853098.jpg?partner=allrovi.com
Bjarte Engeset

Seldom have I found a disc of music so beautifully paced and played.  These five pieces for string orchestra (augmented by oboe and horn on “Evening in the Mountains”) followed by one piece for full orchestra provide the listener with over 71 minutes of pure enjoyment that will convince you (if you weren’t already convinced) that Grieg deserves a place alongside the most significant composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  For me, personally, every one of these pieces is a favorite.  There is nothing to skip over here!

Naxos 8.572403

Two Elegiac Melodies, op. 34 (1880)
+ The Wounded Heart
+ The Last Spring

Two Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 53 (1890)
+ Norwegian
+ The First Meeting

From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, op. 40 (1884)
+ Prelude
+ Sarabande
+ Gavotte
+ Air
+Rigaudon

Two Lyric Pieces, op. 68 (1897-1899)
+ Evening in the Mountains
+ At the Cradle

Two Nordic Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 63 (1895)
+ In Folk Style
+ Cow-Call & Peasant Dance

Lyric Suite, op. 54 (1905)
+ Shepherd Boy
+ Gangar
+ Notturno
+ March of the Dwarves

Don’t let words like “gorgeous” and “pure enjoyment” give you the impression that this music is lightweight fare.  There is a sadness in this beautiful music that evinces that it is anything but superficial.  Grieg and his wife Nina lost their only child, Alexandra, to meningitis when she was little more than a year old, Nina later miscarried a second child, and Grieg himself suffered all his adult life from the effects of pleurisy he had contracted when he was 17 years old.

Nina Grieg with her daughter Alexandra (Edvard Grieg Archives at the Bergen Public Library)

Howard Goodall

I first became familiar with British composer, musician, and music presenter extraordinaire Howard Goodall on August 7, 2017, when his documentary Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution aired on Wisconsin Public Television.  As a lifelong Beatlephile who knows a thing or two about the Beatles and their music, I was immensely impressed with the quality and content of this documentary.  I especially liked his detailed analysis (vis-à-vis Alan W. Pollack) of what makes the music of the Beatles so extraordinary, and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject.  After watching this wonderful hour-long (yes, no commercials!) programme, I vowed to do two things:

  1. Purchase an official DVD copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution
  2. Find out more about Howard Goodall and his work

#1  Sad to say, periodic searches have only turned up bootleg copies from questionable sources.  When will the DVD finally be released?

#2  Somehow I missed it when it was originally broadcast on PBS, but I was delighted to find Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs available through Netflix, so I recently ordered it.

First broadcast in the UK in the autumn of 2000, Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a series of 50-minute documentaries on five transformative developments in the history of Western music.  They are

  1. Notation
  2. Equal Temperament
  3. Opera
  4. The Piano(forte)
  5. Recorded Sound

I just finished watching this series, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in music history.

I enthusiastically look forward to other music documentaries by Howard Goodall.  After watching Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, I believe that he may well be the best person in the world to develop an entire documentary series on the music of The Beatles.  Here’s hoping!

There are those who say that if music has mass appeal it can’t also be music of great significance or depth. What The Beatles proved once and for all is that this idea is hopelessly and absurdly wrong. – Howard Goodall

There are very, very few composers in history whose work changed all the music that followed it: Beethoven was one, Wagner was another. I believe that posterity will add to their select ranks The Beatles. – Howard Goodall

Brahms – Symphony No. 1

If I had to pick a favorite symphony—and that would be difficult to do as I love so many—then it would have to be Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.  Though he completed it in 1876 at the age of 43, he had been working on it for something like 21 years.  He was a consummate perfectionist, and it shows.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra performed this extraordinary work this past weekend as the second half of a really fine program featuring Alban Gerhardt  playing the Walton Cello Concerto, and Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide.  We are so very fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in southern Wisconsin, and music director John DeMain is a treasure.  I am a season subscriber, of course, and attend all the concerts except for the Christmas program in December.

Johannes Brahms in 1876

I cannot get through a performance of the Brahms First Symphony without being moved to tears, and Sunday’s excellent performance by the MSO was no exception.  The final section of the second movement (Andante sostenuto) features an incredibly beautiful violin solo, gorgeously played by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.  The fourth and final movement (Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio — Più allegro) is pure ecstasy.  Just when you think the symphony is drawing to a conclusion, it launches into another, even more remarkable, section.  And that happens more than once.  The modulating transition to the coda in measures 367-390 (about 15:42 to 16:24 into the movement, two minutes before the end) for me is one of the most exciting sections of the entire work.

I once asked my friend and accomplished horn player John Wunderlin—who is similarly deeply moved by orchestral music—how he keeps from choking up during the most moving passages he plays.  “Fear of messing up” he said, half jokingly and half serious.  Part of the discipline that any professional musician must have is maintaining composure  during even the most moving and beautiful sections.  I don’t think I could do it.  But I did once see a teary-eyed violinist in the orchestra at the conclusion of a work.  Want to know what that work was?  It was the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4

The Fourth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was completed in May 1936, but had to be withdrawn before it was performed due to the withering criticism and scrutiny Shostakovich was at the time receiving from Joseph Stalin and his increasingly repressive government.  This symphony did not receive its first public performance until 1961.  To get a sense of the enormous difficulties Shostakovich had to endure under the Soviet regime—and the extraordinary music of one of the 20th century’s most gifted composers, and indeed the last great symphonist—I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s eight-part video course, Great Masters: Shostakovich – His Life and Music.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

The Fourth Symphony is certainly not one of Shostakovich’s more accessible works, but I want to draw your attention to the remarkable, ethereal conclusion of this symphony that few have ever heard.

My entire Shostakovich collection was lost in the Memorial Day weekend 2015 Houston flood, and I’m gradually trying to replace it.  I am currently listening to all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies in an excellent box set, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007).  Rostropovich was a close friend of Shostakovich.

Here is the final 4m45s of the third and final movement (Largo — Allegro) of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43, by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.  Turn up the volume—after the first couple of seconds, it is all very quiet.  Enjoy!

Symphonies by Women

How many women have achieved the compositional milestone of writing a symphony for full orchestra?  The answer is, quite a few!  What follows is what I believe to be a comprehensive list of all symphonies written by women.  If you know of others—or if you find anything here that needs correcting—please post a comment.  So many of these works have been unjustly neglected.  The day will come (hopefully soon) when any short list of the greatest composers will include women.

Looking towards the future, one composer to watch will certainly be Alma Deutscher.  Her first of many symphonies is eagerly anticipated!

Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2

Lera Auerbach (1973-)
Symphony No. 1, “Chimera”
Symphony No. 2, “Requiem for a Poet”
Symphony No. 3, “The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie”

Elizabeth Austin (1938-)
Symphony No. 1, “Wilderness Symphony”
Symphony No. 2, “Lighthouse”

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4

Judith Bailey (1941-)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2

Elsa Barraine (1910-1999)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2

Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Gaelic Symphony

Sally Beamish (1956-)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2

Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927)
Symphony in F Major

Johanna Bordewijk-Roepman (1892-1971)
Symphony

Ina Boyle (1889-1967)
Symphony No. 1, “Glencree”
Symphony No. 2, “The Dream of the Rood”
Symphony No. 3, “From the Darkness”

Elisabetta Brusa (1954-)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2

Gloria Coates (1938-)
Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings”
Symphony No. 2, “Music on Abstract Lines/ Illuminatio in Tenebris”
Symphony No. 3, “Symphony for Strings/Symphony Nocturne”
Symphony No. 4, “Chiaroscuro”
Symphony No. 5, “Drei mystische Gesänge”
Symphony No. 6, “Music in Microtones”
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 8, “Indian Sounds”
Symphony No. 9, “Homage to Van Gogh”
Symphony No. 10, “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins”
Symphony No. 11
Symphony No. 12
Symphony No. 13
Symphony No. 14, “The Americans”
Symphony No. 15, “Homage to Mozart”
Symphony No. 16, “Time Frozen”

Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2, “Choral Symphony, This Land
Symphony No. 3, “Lyric”
Symphony No. 4, “Autumn”

Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949)
Symphony in C minor

Yvonne Desportes (1907-1993)
Symphony No. 1, “Saint-Gindolph”
Symphony No. 2, “Monorythmie”
Symphony No. 3, “L’Éternel féminin”

Sophie Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899-1974)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2, “Manitoba”

Pozzi Escot (1933-)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6

Tsippi Fleischer (1946-)
Symphony No. 1, “Salt Crystals”
Symphony No. 2, “The Train”
Symphony No. 3, “Regarding Beauty”
Symphony No. 4, “A Passing Shadow”
Symphony No. 5, “Israeli-Jewish Collage”
Symphony No. 6, “The Eyes, Mirror of the Soul”
Symphony No. 7, “Choral Symphony”

Ilse Fromm-Michaels (1888-1986)
Symphony in C minor

Ruth Gipps (1921-1999)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5

Julia Gomelskaya (1964-2016)
Symphony No. 1, “SymPhobia”
Symphony No. 2, “Ukraine Forever”
Symphony No. 3, “Magnet”
Symphony No. 4, “Ra-Aeternae”

Barbara Harbach (1946-)
Symphony No. 1, “Veneration for Orchestra”
Symphony No. 2, “One of Ours – A Cather Symphony”
Symphony No. 3, “A State Divided – a Missouri Symphony”
Symphony No. 4, “Jubilee Symphony”
Symphony No. 5, “Gateway Festival Symphony”
Symphony No. 6, “Night Sounds”
Symphony No. 7, “O Pioneers!”
Symphony No. 8, “The Scarlet Letter”
Symphony No. 9, “Celestial Symphony”
Symphony No. 10, “Symphony for Ferguson”

Minna Keal (1909-1999)
Symphony, op. 3

Helvi Leiviskä (1902-1982)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3

Ester Mägi (1922-)
Symphony

Nina Makarova (1908-1976)
Symphony in D minor

Emilie Mayer (1812-1883)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3, “Military”
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 8

Anne-Marie Ørbeck (1911-1996)
Symphony in D Major

Alla Pavlova (1952-)
Symphony No. 1 “Farewell, Russia” for chamber orchestra
Symphony No. 2 “For the New Millennium”
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 8
Symphony No. 9
Symphony No. 10, “Path to Golden Gate”

Dora Pejačević (1885-1923)
Symphony in F-sharp minor

Victoria Polevá (1962-)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2, “Offertory to Anton Bruckner”
Symphony No. 3, “White interment”

Florence Price (1887-1953)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4

Shulamit Ran (1949-)
Symphony

Johanna Senfter (1879-1961)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 8
Symphony No. 9

Verdina Shlonsky (1905-1990)
Symphony

Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Symphony No. 2 in A minor

Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2, “True and Eternal Bliss!”
Symphony No. 3, “Jesus Messiah, Save Us!”
Symphony No. 4, “Prayer”
Symphony No. 5, “Amen”

Lucy Wilkins (1939-)
Symphony

Grace Williams (1906-1977)
Symphony No. 1, “Symphonic Impressions”
Symphony No. 2

Judith Lang Zaimont (1945-)
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2, “Remember Me”
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4 “Pure, Cool (Water)”

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1939-)
Symphony No. 1, “Three Movements for Orchestra”
Symphony No. 2 “Cello Symphony”
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4, “The Gardens”
Symphony No. 5, “Concerto for Orchestra”

Four Last Songs

German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) composed his Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) in 1948 at the age of 84.  These extraordinarily beautiful orchestral songs were the last completed compositions by Strauss, save for a song for soprano and piano called “Malven” composed later that same year and virtually unknown until 1984.

John Rockwell writes in the September 15, 1984 issue of the New York Times: “Strauss, who died in September 1949 at the age of 85, is widely believed to be the finest composer in the German song tradition after Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf, with an affinity for the soprano voice.  In addition, his final compositions of the 1940’s are especially prized, blending autumnal mastery with late-blooming inspiration.”

The Four Last Songs were neither published nor performed until after Strauss’ death.  Their first performance was on May 22, 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall in London by legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) and Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

  1. Frühling [Spring]
  2. September
  3. Beim Schlafengehen [When Falling Asleep]
  4. Im Abendrot [At Sunset]

Earlier, I wrote about the extraordinary recording of Also sprach Zarathustra by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.  Another indispensable Strauss recording is soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (who retired from professional singing just last month) singing Four Last Songs and six other Strauss orchestral songs with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical SK 92606), January 13-20, 1977.

Te Kanawa is the perfect soprano to sing Four Last Songs, and I doubt you will find a better performance.  Six additional R. Strauss orchestral songs make this a recording that should be in every Strauss enthusiast’s collection.

  1. Morgen [Tomorrow]
  2. Muttertändelei [Mother-chatter]
  3. Ruhe, meine Seele [Rest, my soul]
  4. Wiegenlied [Lullaby]
  5. Befreit [Released]
  6. Zueignung [Dedication]

Graham Nash

Graham Nash played a wonderful concert last night in Madison, Wisconsin, along with incredible guitarist Shane Fontayne (who also contributed backing vocals).  At age 75, he sounds great.

The venue was perfect.  This was my first visit to the ornate Capitol Theater, which was incorporated into the Overture Center, which opened in 2004.  Acoustics were perfect, the environment comfortable and attractive, and the music was never too loud.  The earplugs I brought along just in case went unused.  A lovely evening.

Here’s the setlist from the October 14, 2017 performance:

Set 1

  1. Bus Stop (The Hollies song)
  2. King Midas in Reverse (The Hollies song)
  3. Wasted on the Way (Crosby, Stills & Nash song)
  4. I Used to Be a King
  5. Immigration Man (Crosby & Nash song)
  6. Sleep Song
  7. Myself at Last
  8. Marrakesh Express (Crosby, Stills & Nash song)
  9. Military Madness
  10. Wind on the Water (Crosby & Nash song)
  11. A Day in the Life (The Beatles cover)

Set 2

  1. Just a Song Before I Go (Crosby, Stills & Nash song)
  2. Taken at All (Crosby & Nash song)
  3. In Your Name
  4. 4 + 20 (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song)
  5. Golden Days
  6. Mississippi Burning
  7. Back Home
  8. Cathedral (Crosby, Stills & Nash song)
  9. Our House (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song)
  10. Chicago (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song)

Encore

  1. Blackbird (The Beatles cover)
  2. Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song)
  3. Teach Your Children (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song)

I’ve been a fan of Graham Nash since his 1971 album, Songs for Beginners and, of course, his work with CSNY.  I’ve always appreciated his deep political convictions and antiwar activism.  This was in full evidence at last night’s concert, with Immigration Man, Military Madness, In Your Name, Mississippi Burning, Cathedral, Chicago, Ohio, and Teach Your Children still as relevant today as they were when they were originally written—some of them decades ago.

This activism was reflected in some of his comments to the audience.  Prior to performing Military Madness, he shared that he is “tired of doing this song” as he reflected on the current dire political situation in this country and around the world.  At one point in the song, he replaced the words “military madness” with “nuclear madness”.  Nash made it clear at various points throughout the concert that he despises Donald Trump and his administration, and as near as I could tell, everyone in the audience agreed with him (Hillary Clinton received over twice as many votes as Donald Trump in Dane County, thankfully).  In Chicago he replaced the words “Don’t ask jack to help you ’cause he’ll turn the other ear” to “Don’t ask Trump to help you ’cause he’ll turn the other ear.”  And so on. His occasional comments between songs about war and violence were heartfelt and sincere.  He lamented, “What ever happened to ‘all you need is love'”, and that each of us must do our part to “stop all the killing”.  Nash also noted that many people now and in the past have been killed in the name of religion.  [That is why I take such a dim view of organized religion—none of us have it right.]  He also mentioned the news focuses on all the horrific things that happen in the world but not the “thousands of good things” that happen everywhere every day.

For more about Nash in a recent interview, see Tom Kobinsky’s interview published October 12 in Isthmus, “Finding peace in chaos”.

There were a number of good balcony seats available in the Capitol Theater on Saturday, October 14, 8:00 p.m.  If you weren’t there, you missed a fabulous concert.  Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne will be playing Milwaukee tonight.  Future concert dates can be found here.  Enjoy!

References
Kobinsky, Tom, Isthmus, “Finding peace in chaos: Graham Nash on teaching our children in the age of Trump”, Oct. 12, 2017 <https://isthmus.com/music/songwriter-graham-nash-trump/>

setlist.fm <https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/graham-nash/2017/capitol-theater-overture-center-for-the-arts-madison-wi-53e3d7e5.html>

Also Sprach Zarathustra

My first exposure to the music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was, like many, the magnificent fanfare that is the opening music in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/Der_junge_Richard_Strauss.JPG
Richard Strauss

I soon discovered that this was the beginning section of the 1896 tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss.

The full title of the work, his opus 30, is Also sprach Zarathustra: Tondichtung für großes Orchester (frei nach Friedrich Nietzsche) [Thus spoke Zarathustra: Tone-poem for large orchestra (freely after Friedrich Nietzsche)].

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote his philosophical novel that was the inspiration for this musical work, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen [Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None] between 1883 and 1885.  Nietzsche argues that the meaning of existence is not to be found in religious pieties or meek submission to authority, but in an all-powerful life force: passionate, chaotic and free. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961).

Friedrich Nietzsche

The nine sections of Also sprach Zarathustra by R. Strauss are as follows:

  1. Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang [Introduction, or Sunrise]
  2. Von den Hinterweltlern [Of the Backworldsmen]
  3. Von der großen Sehnsucht [Of the Great Longing]
  4. Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften [Of Joys and Passions]
  5. Das Grablied [The Song of the Grave]
  6. Von der Wissenschaft [Of Science and Learning]
  7. Der Genesende [The Convalescent]
  8. Das Tanzlied [The Dance-Song]
  9. Nachtwandlerlied [Song of the Night Wanderer]

There is one recording of this extraordinary work that stands above all the rest.  It is so close to perfection that I doubt it will ever be surpassed.  It is the 1973 Deutsche Grammophon recording, released in 1974, of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.  Solo violin: Michel Schwalbé.

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)

This very best recording of Also sprach Zarathustra is Deutsche Grammophon 447 441-2.  Duration: 35:05.  Seek out this recording, and enjoy it for a lifetime!

Einstein, Brahms, and Exoplanets

What do Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and exoplanets have in common?  They are all great courses provided by The Great Courses.

Call me old fashioned, but I love a great lecture presented by an expert in the field.  What a wonderful way to get introduced to a new subject, or refamiliarize yourself with an old subject, or deepen your knowledge about a subject with which you are already familiar.

I recently finished watching the magnificent course “Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian” by Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, former Director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, and a Fellow of the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

I have taken an interest in Einstein since I first encountered relativity in my early teens, and of course being a physics major in college I became much more familiar with Einstein’s remarkable scientific contributions.  But this course surprised and delighted me with many details about Einstein himself.  Howard obviously has a much deeper understanding of Einstein the person than most physicists do, and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through in every lecture.  I doubt you will find a more thorough treatment of Einstein anywhere short of reading a biography.  Recommended!

As luck would have it, while I was nearing the end of this course, Time came out with an updated reissue of its special edition, “Albert Einstein: The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Genius”.  Great photographs, great text.  Well worth every penny!


Robert Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and has produced a lot of high-quality music courses for The Great Courses.  I am in the process of watching all of them (yes, really, they’re that good!).  Recently, I finished his course on Johannes Brahms, who is probably my all-time favorite composer.

The music of Brahms is well known by many, but how much do you know about Johannes Brahms the person, and the events of his life?  This course is the perfect introduction to those subjects, as well as his extraordinary compositions.

It is amazing to me that no one has yet made a feature-length film about the life of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  A historically accurate dramatic portrayal could easily become one of the most significant musical film biographies ever made.  Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and he had an interesting life—there is much material to draw upon for the making of this movie.  Greenberg’s course is a great place to begin, and I would also recommend the definitive biography, “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer.


You’ve just got to love The Great Courses.  This is what television could have been.  PBS is the only thing that even comes close.  I recently completed “The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know” presented by Joshua Winn, now Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.  Not since Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson have I been this excited about an astronomy presenter.  Josh Winn presents his exoplanets course with enthusiasm, precision, and a delivery that really draws you in to the subject.  I hope we see much more of him in the future.