Patterico's Pontifications


Bach and the High Baroque by Robert Greenberg: A Review

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 5:00 am

I recently commented that I had been listening to a class about Bach, and commenter Pinandpuller asked me to share the details. As I listen to my Zenph re-recording of the Goldberg Variations, I am happy to share the details of a course that has changed my life for the better.

Although a lifelong fan of classical music, I have always been a huge fan of some composers (Beethoven, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Schubert leap to mind) and skeptical of certain others (including many of the moderns, and two of the older guys: Haydn and . . . you guessed it: Bach). Anyway, I have become a devotee of the “Great Courses” offered by The Teaching Company — in particular, the offerings by their resident music expert Robert Greenberg. He has opened my mind to a lot of music I either didn’t know, or incompletely understood.

Including the music of J.S. Bach.

I believe I own every single course by Greenberg. Hang on while I go check to see if I’m right.

OK, I just checked. When I started writing this post, I owned 24 of the courses. The shorter courses are about 6 hours, while the longer (and frankly better) courses are 12 to 36 hours in length. After checking, I learned that I was missing two of the 26 Greenberg courses offered by The Teaching Company, and instantly remedied that defect in my collection. (I did this very inexpensively, and will explain later in the post how I did that, and how you can do the same.)

So anyway, I do indeed own every Greenberg course that The Teaching Company offers. I am a huge, huge fan of these courses. Even as a lifelong classical music lover and music major, I have learned enough from these courses to more than justify the monetary expense of obtaining them (which I’ll help you minimize) and, more importantly, the expense of time in listening to them.

What you’ll get out of a Greenberg course depends on your level of musical knowledge. If you’re a newbie, the shorter biographical courses with less musical content might be more your speed. I own those too and I enjoy them too. But I grew up as someone who read Beethoven and Brahms biographies for fun as a kid and could rattle off the birth and death years of most of the major composers from memory. My parents were classical music lovers and made me take piano lessons, and I was a parent-pleasing first child who took after his parents in most respects. So I get a lot more out of the (unfortunately rare) longer courses that survey a specific area of output by a particular composer, or (in one unusual case, that of Bach) spend a significant amount of time on the output of a single composer.

If you’ve made it this far in this post, you might be a Big Music Lover too, so I’m going to emphasize the stuff I got out of these detailed courses, in the hope that you seek them out as well and have your life enriched the way mine has been,

The courses I most highly recommend are Bach and the High Baroque (25 hours), The Chamber Music of Mozart (12 hours), Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (18 hours), The Symphonies of Beethoven (24 hours), or (a personal favorite) The String Quartets of Beethoven (18.5 hours). (All links in this post are affiliate links to Amazon.)

I could go on and on and on about the stuff I have learned from these courses. In the future I will probably do a post about each as I revisit them. For now, with the Pinandpuller request to discuss the Bach course, and that being the one I most recently completed, I’ll concentrate on Bach.

Again, the reason the Bach course has so enriched my life is because I wasn’t a Bach fan before. I always saw Bach as repetitive and dry. Yes, I get it: you do an intricate melody and sequence it three times, each time a little higher or lower than the last, and there is all this counterpoint that I admit is technically proficient but which leaves me cold. Yawn.

I thought the Kyrie of the B Minor Mass was cool. I enjoyed some of the Well Tempered Clavier pieces I knew and played as a kid. And everybody knows a couple of those famous pieces like the Air on a G String or the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. But other than that, Bach left me cold.

Man, was I wrong. I am now like a kid in a candy store — only the candy is substantive and only gains flavor the more you chew on it.

Sure, Greenberg gives you the biographical history. Yes, he gives you the historical and musical context, and instructs you (if you didn’t know them already) in the forms of fugue, ritornello, concerto, and so on.

But to me, the real treat was in becoming familiar with the intricacies of the details of pieces like the Goldberg Variations, or the St. Matthew Passion. With the Goldberg Variations, the tidbits include the structural details, like the way the piece is subdivided in two, with variation 16 being a French overture (he’ll explain it to you), but also subdivided into ten trinities bookended by the aria on each side. The trinities all end in canons beginning at increasing intervals, with the first canon (variation 3) at the unison, the second (variation 6) at the interval of the second, and so on up to the octave. The significance of the minor variations, in particular the “black pearl” (variation 25) is fascinating. I could go on.

And the St. Matthew Passion. What a piece! Listen as it is explained how Jesus’s vocal pieces are always accompanied by a halo-like shimmer of violins — with one singular exception that shows Bach’s deep understanding of the significance of the crucifixion. One detail I never knew, which is truly a Music Nerd detail, is that e minor is the key of the crucifixion. Why? Because, like its relative major G major, it has a single sharp — and in German, the word for “sharp” (as in the sharps and flats used in music) is Kreuz — the same word that is used to mean “cross.” Get it? One sharp, one cross — the One True Cross.


The fun nuggets of learning go on and on.

SMALL ASIDE: I don’t owe all of my Bach appreciation to Greenberg; just most of it. Last year, Mrs. P and I went for a long weekend with the fella that long-time blog readers know as Armed Liberal from Winds of Change, as well as his lovely wife. We hung out at the Aviara resort near San Diego and went to see Verdi’s Falstaff at the San Diego Opera. One afternoon, as we were hanging out and drinking wine in the Aviara’s open area off the lobby, I asked A.L. what his favorite music was, and he named Bach’s Cello Suites as among his favorite music. He had seen Yo-Yo Ma perform them at a concert in (if I recall correctly) Minneapolis years ago, and had even gotten to meet the famous cellist.) I said I didn’t know the pieces, but resolved to become acquainted with them. And then Yo-Yo Ma announced his performance of the suites in their entirety at a marathon concert at the Hollywood Bowl this past summer, and I knew I had to invite A.L. and the wife to come along. (In an example of terrible timing, he ended up having to go to New York for work the night before, so Mrs. P. and I and A.L.’s wife went with a friend of theirs and A.L. missed out, which I’m still sad about.)

I listened to those cello pieces dozens of times before the concert, and played through them on the piano (well, all but No. 5, which is written in that bizarre C-clef that I have struggled with my whole life). I now know and love those pieces as if I had listened to them my whole life — and I owe that to Armed Liberal and not to Greenberg. (END ASIDE)

BACK TO GREENBERG: In reading reviews of the Greenberg courses, I see that the man’s style is not for everyone. He is very confident and expressive (and the reviews reveal that he occasionally gets small facts wrong) and most importantly he cracks a lot of corny jokes. Look: I’m a fan of dad jokes. I ask Alexa (yes, Alexa: I probably would not have gotten it, my mom got it for us and it turns out to be useful and fun) to tell us jokes pretty frequently. They are often dad jokes and they make me laugh.

Where did Napoleon hide his armies?

In his sleevies.

(While we’re sharing corny humor that my kids roll their eyes at, did you ever see Sail Cat? My kids say I should not say anything about it on the Internet because literally everyone else in the world saw this five years ago or more, but I saw it for the first time in the last week or two and I could not stop watching and laughing.)

Anyway, I think Greenberg is funny, but if you hate funny dad jokes then fairly warned be thee say I.

These courses can be bought for a song, if you are an Audible member, or become one. The discount is absurd, and paying “sticker price” would be like paying the sticker price for a new car. Take the course on the Beethoven symphonies. The Great Courses Website indicates that their usual price for DVDs is $519 and their cheapest option, an audio download, is $250. Absurd. As of this writing they have a “sale” where the audio download is $45 and the DVDs are $110. Also silly. Amazon tells you that they want to charge you $30 for an audio CD and $26.47 for an audio download. We’re getting closer for a 24-hour course, but you can do a lot better.

Join Audible as a Platinum member and pay $22.95 per month (cancel any time) and get 2 credits a month. Each costs you $11.48. Or join as a Gold member and pay $14.95 a month for one credit. A credit will buy you a whole course, no matter how long it is or what the usual sticker price is. So you’re paying about $12-15 per course, depending on which option you go with.

If you’re convinced and you want to sign up for Audible now, you can do it through my link. I get a commission and you get a 30-day free trial and two free audiobooks to start:

Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

If you’re a music nerd, I’d highly recommend Bach and the High Baroque and the Beethoven String Quartets as your free selections. Even if you’re not, Greenberg keeps it simple enough that as long as you’re interested, you’ll be glad you did it. Those two courses alone would be over 43 hours of music instruction for free, and then $14.95 a month after that if you don’t cancel.

If you’re like me, you’ll go Platinum for barely over a year — long enough to get all 26 Greenberg courses, at about $12 a pop.

Anyway, if Greenberg did nothing but acquaint me better with the music of Bach, that alone would be enough. As regular readers know, I have begun to post a Bach cantata every Sunday, with eight entries so far and counting. I feel funny saying this, but Bach’s music has even motivated me to go to church again. I was raised in the Episcopal church, but Bach’s example spurred me to look for a Lutheran church, and I found one nearby that has a very welcoming congregation where I feel very comfortable. Commenter DRJ noted something that I had never heard before: that Bach’s cantatas have been called “the fifth Gospel.” Indeed:

Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist working in Minneapolis, was once a devout Buddhist. Now, thanks to the music of J. S. Bach, she is a Christian. “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity,” she told Metro Lutheran, a Twin Cities monthly. “When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God.” Masashi Masuda, a Jesuit priest, came to faith in almost the same way: “Listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity.” Today Masuda teaches theology at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

But why would the most abstract works of an 18th-century German composer guide Asian people to Christ? Charles Ford, a mathematics professor in St. Louis, suggests that this is because Bach’s music reflects the perfect beauty of created order to which the Japanese mind is receptive. “Bach has had the same effect on me, a Western scientist,” explained Ford. Henry Gerike, organist and choirmaster at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, agrees: “The fugue is the best way God has given us to enjoy his creation. … But of course Bach’s most significant message to us is the Gospel.” Gerike echoes Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931), who famously called Bach’s cantatas “the fifth Gospel.”

I can’t easily explain it in words, and it makes me feel a little sheepish to talk about it, but my experience has been much the same. After listening to Bach, I just felt drawn to the church, and I couldn’t really articulate precisely why when people asked. But it makes sense to me inside, and that’s all that matters.

And this, among other things, I mostly owe to Robert Greenberg and his course on Bach. I can only hope that even one person reads this and has even half the experience I have had as a result.

[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]

18 Responses to “Bach and the High Baroque by Robert Greenberg: A Review”

  1. I hope somebody gets something out of this.

    Patterico (115b1f)

  2. Sorry I don’t do Amazon. I buy locally even though that process is unsustainable.

    As to classical gas I am lowbrow with Bluegrass and RR.

    Admiral Ben Bunsen Burner (b3d5ab)

  3. I got a lot out of this. I, too, was a parent-pleasing child who took piano, and it was my Dad who introduced me to the Great Courses. Aren’t they wonderful? I haven’t chosen the musical courses —
    yet! — because I do not have an ordered musical mind. But that makes it even more interesting to be exposed to this post and the Bach Cantata posts, things that I already love (God and the Gospels), and then to see them in a different way.

    Finally, on a personal note, I am glad you found a good church. I was also raised Episcopalian but I’ve attended Lutheran churches and found them to be very similar and welcoming. IMO religion and a good church are important to God’s blessings and a life well lived.

    DRJ (15874d)

  4. I just got the Great Courses’ Sale Catalogue yesterday. There is so much to learn. It’s Christmas but for adults.

    DRJ (15874d)

  5. DRJ: Have you been to respective ELCA, Missouri Synod and WELS (WisconsinSynod) churches and what are some of the appreciable differences between the sects? My daughter attended a WELS pre-K for p3,p4 and kindergarten. Overall a great welcoming experience and they balanced math well with religious content requirements.

    urbanleftbehind (9240ed)

  6. DRJ: Have you been to respective ELCA, Missouri Synod and WELS (WisconsinSynod) churches and what are some of the appreciable differences between the sects?

    Mine is ELCA. I too would be interested in the differences.

    Patterico (115b1f)

  7. I just got the Great Courses’ Sale Catalogue yesterday. There is so much to learn. It’s Christmas but for adults.

    It truly is silly to get them any way other than Audible, whether you use my link or not. $12-$15 per course beats anything the Great Courses site offers, I’m pretty sure.

    The shorter 6-hour courses are better bought as stand-alones than with credits because they are less expensive than the credits.

    I also have courses on negotiation and relativity. I like them both have not finished either yet.

    Patterico (115b1f)

  8. Finally, on a personal note, I am glad you found a good church. I was also raised Episcopalian but I’ve attended Lutheran churches and found them to be very similar and welcoming. IMO religion and a good church are important to God’s blessings and a life well lived.

    It’s comforting on many levels. I do like the atmosphere. My siblings attend these churches where they play the guitars and all that kind of thing. Me, give me the hymn book and an organ and the rituals I am used to.

    Patterico (115b1f)

  9. Thanks I grew up Catholic and became a Baptist some years ago, when I first came up here i tried a Methodist service, it was ok. I think the fidelity of the word is more important than any particular denomination.

    narciso (d1f714)

  10. Urban and Patterico – thoughts from one raised Missouri Synod, but converted to Roman Catholic as an adult. (Many German Pastors on my mom’s side, including a grand-uncle who was one of the original Pastors founding the Synod.). Wisconsin and Missouri synods vie for the most socially conservative, but WELS always seemed to me to be more Calvinist in their adherence to Paul’s Gospel – I’m not certain if WELS follows the doctrine of transubstantition as The Missouri Synod does (that the host is the actual body and blood, not just a symbol). While Missouri Synod services are close to Catholic Masses, salvation through faith alone is the foundation of Missouri Synod theology.

    The ELCA is the liberal wing of the Lutheran sects – ordaining women and gays, and with the Swedish Synod sanctioning same sax weddings.

    My Grandfather taught music in Oakland Ca for 42 years, was our Church’s Choir Director and Organist. I grew up listening to him play Bach, Handel and Beethoven. Still love the music and the memories it evokes.

    Steve Malynn (296daf)

  11. Yes, the WELS adhered to biblical inerrancy and also (Not known to me at thetime) a doctrine of Roman Catholic pope as Antichrist (from their founding, not just upon the elevation of Francis 😊). At that time, I, semidevout Catholic and still so, might have arm yanked my daughter from the school.

    urbanleftbehind (9240ed)

  12. urbanleftbehind,

    I’m sorry if I left the wrong impression. I was raised an Episcopalian but I am an Anglican now, and the only Lutheran churches I’ve attended are as a visitor where I live and when I go to Mayo Rochester. There is a beautiful Lutheran church next to the Mayo campus that is very welcoming — maybe not like Texans welcome people but the wonderful way sweet, reserved Minnesotans welcome folks. But what I appreciate the most about Episcopalian, Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic churches is the liturgy. That is what makes a church feel like home to me.

    DRJ (15874d)

  13. Now that’s a silly notion, how do they explain Peter’s position. These quibbling over lesser matters has caused great harm.

    narciso (d1f714)

  14. Audible is the way to go, Patterico, but I also try to buy a few Great Courses directly because they let me use my Dad’s account. It lets me feel closer to him since his death, but your way is MUCH cheaper.

    DRJ (15874d)

  15. You have an educated ear, Patterico, and I imagine that contributes a great deal to your appreciation of Bach.

    Me, even after 56 years (since I was first an altar boy), I still find both the hymns and the liturgy in church very stirring. It’s better in Greek but “Your own of Your own we offer to You, in all and for all”, as the priest prepares the Communion, still sends shivers up my spine.

    nk (dbc370)

  16. Thank you for posting this. My music loving grandma blessed me with a nice Christmas check this year so I’m going to see if I can shoot the works and upgrade my DAW as well.

    Do you have anything to share on how you partake of music? I have some studio monitors I can listen through in my music room but I don’t really know what’s going on with “HIFi” these days.

    Thanks again.

    Pinandpuller (401e2c)

  17. Great music choice. Enjoying my time with Bach.

    Gmail QA (a867bc)

  18. If you live in the City of Los Angeles, it’s possible to download many Great Courses recordings (maybe 5-10% of the catalog) from if you have a library card. There are many other libraries that offer these as well. I put them on a flash drive and play them while driving around town.

    Vince (d22525)

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