Understanding Music


Sixteen sessions on Wednesdays from 10.15am to 12.30pm in South Kensington, London


AUTUMN   October 1, 8, 15 and 22, November 5, 12, 19 and 26

*SPRING January 14, 21 and 28, February 4 and 11,  March 4, 11 and 18

Understanding Music is a course spanning 250 years of music by focusing on a number of key composers. It aims to give you the knowledge, understanding and aural signposts to enrich your own listening.

Each session has three aspects. First a brief summary of the development of a particular musical form or genre. Next, an examination of the life and social, cultural and musical context of a composer who excelled in that form. And finally, study of a representative work by that composer, including the story of its early performances and the significance of its musical legacy. The course:

• places music in its wider historical, cultural and social context
• describes the development of music’s major building blocks and explains points of style,  structure and form
• offers aural signposts to make listening more rewarding
• connects you to leading scholars and performers
• includes live performance from Royal College of Music artists in most sessions
• provides supporting online resources
• takes places in a beautiful salon setting and includes tailor-made visits to examine the    treasures  of the RCM Collections which comprise scores, manuscripts, instruments and  portraits
• supports the work of the Royal College of Music’s Scholarship Fund and the Vernon Ellis      Foundation.

A full timetable of sessions is given below.

Venue and Registration

Understanding Music is held at 49 Queen’s Gate Terrace, London SW7 5PN by kind invitation of Sir Vernon and Lady Ellis.

Registration is now open.


Musical revolution: the symphonies of Beethoven
From an elegant entertainment for educated and wealthy patrons, under Beethoven’s stewardship the symphony became one of the key repositories of universal human experience. Tracing this journey, culminating in a detailed study of the Ninth symphony, Karl Lutchmayer explores the social, cultural and musical revolutions which culminated in the first performance.

Grace and grandeur, love and betrayal: the operas of Handel 
Handel’s success in London mirrored the rise of the newly wealthy middle class, and, steering a deft line between court and mercantile circles, he thus became one of the most important figures in early 18th-century London. Exploring his unique musical style against the backdrop of his exact contemporaries Bach and Scarlatti, Karl Lutchmayer concludes with a comparison of Handel’s Italian opera, Alcina, with his English oratorio, Semele.

‘Forced to become original’: the string quartets of Haydn
Widely praised for being the father of the sonata, symphony and string quartet, Haydn was actually more the codifier of these then experimental forms. The 68 string quartets are central to exploring his own evolution as a composer, which was profoundly influenced by his employment at the Esterházy Court. This distanced him from musical fashions prevailing in nearby Vienna, allowing him to develop a distinctive voice. From Haydn’s first published work, via his interest in the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement, to his final, early 19th-century compositional style, Karl Lutchmayer focuses on the composer’s op 76 quartets of 1796–1797.

Immeasurable genius: the concertos of Mozart
Mozart wrote piano concertos throughout his life, usually for himself to play. (Apparently his father interrupted him composing a harpsichord concerto at the age of four!). Quite recently, these works have come to be seen as containing some of his greatest achievements. Professor Colin Lawson focuses upon the Piano Concerto no 12 in A major, K414, and there will also be live illustrations from the celebrated Clarinet Concerto.

Exquisite facility: the chamber music of Mendelssohn
Possibly more prodigious than Mozart, Mendelssohn’s astonishing skill set also included fencing, riding and painting. As a teenager, he was even invited to spend his summers explaining the ‘new’ classical style to Goethe! Perhaps the most reluctant member of the new Romantic school of composition, Mendelssohn thrived on more traditional musical outlooks; as such he was the only composer of note to be writing chamber music in the 1830s, such as the piano trios featured by Karl Lutchmayer in this session.

Inner turbulence: the piano music of Schumann
Perhaps the only composer to write successfully for the piano without being a performer on the instrument himself, Schumann produced an unbroken stream of piano masterworks between 1830–1839. He often found inspiration in literature, as seen in Carnaval op 9, the work on which Karl Lutchmayer focuses in this session. Though plagued by mental health problems, Schumann helped to coalesce a new, and very specifically Central European form of Romanticism far away from the ‘piano circus’ which was Paris.

Gift and conflict: the Lieder of Schubert
Schubert’s songs have delighted our ears, soothed our hearts and challenged our minds for nearly two centuries. The early German Lied was modest in scope, designed to provide gentle entertainment or accompany the private devotions of amateurs. Under the shadow of the Metternich era, public cultural life in Vienna was stifled, diverting vast creative energy into private genres like the Lied and chamber music. In this atmosphere of repression, one chubby, bespectacled little man generated more than 600 songs. In this talk Dr Natasha Loges will explore Schubert’s posthumous song collection Schwanengesang (Swansong), as part of the immense legacy he left for the next generation.

Sacred & secular: the religious music of J S Bach
Much writing about Bach stresses his religious music including his Cantatas and Passions. But Bach was as much a secular as a sacred composer, working for at least ten years in a court rather than a church. Bach drew on, and incorporated, both secular and sacred styles into most of his music. He was also familiar with his musical heritage as well as contemporary music; as Alfred Einstein wrote, he was ‘a river into which all tributaries flowed’. Roderick Swanston examines the range of Bach’s musical language and his fusion of styles by focusing on his Christmas Oratorio, placing it into the theology and culture of the age.


Intellect, power and beauty: the piano sonatas of Beethoven 
With the monumental corpus of 32 piano sonatas, not only did Beethoven test-drive the new pianoforte, but set down challenges to pianists, composers and even piano manufacturers which were to have repercussions for the rest of the century. Focusing on the Appassionata op 57 and the Sonata in A major op 101, Karl Lutchmayer demonstrates the extraordinary construction of these works which simultaneously achieve both diversity and unity.

At home with friends: the interior world of Brahms 
The musical world of Johannes Brahms and his contemporaries was a culture rich with the delights of private music-making. As a means of testing new works among trusted friends, and a social activity in which professional and amateur musicians could enjoy the pleasure of playing and singing together, Brahms deeply valued music in the home. And with an ever-expanding market of keen amateurs hungry for new music, Brahms was one of many composers who specifically targeted this audience in certain pieces. Drawing on the Liebeslieder WalzterDr Katy Hamilton explores how Brahms went about writing for amateur musicians, and the fun he had himself in convivial music-making.

Glitter and glamour, fame and fortune: the operas of Rossini 
Rossini began his training early and soon became the idol of the Italian opera public. His fame and popularity surpassed that of any previous composer, as audiences were intoxicated by his frothy music. His style dominated Italian opera throughout the first half of the 19th century. Professor Colin Lawson focuses on one of his most celebrated works, The Barber of Seville, in the company of young singers from the RCM International Opera School.

Dance: at Versailles, and on the stage in Paris
‘To get on at court you need only know how to dance’, was the advice given to would-be courtiers in a celebrated book of the 17th century. Nobody did it more (or better) than the French! From the formation dances that graced the stages of the courts in the grand siècle, through the elegance, scores and skills of the Romantic Ballet, the final focus will be on the revolution of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. This session will take the form of a conversation between Professor Richard Langham Smith of the RCM, and Stephanie Jordan (Professor of Dance at the University of Roehampton), with illustrations both visual and musical, to demonstrate how music and dance work together.

From Nietzsche to Kubrick, via the Alps: the tone poems of Richard Strauss 
Perhaps the last Romantic composer, Richard Strauss took Liszt’s invention of the tone poem to its logical conclusion, encompassing along the way legend, literature, philosophy and even sci-fi! In this session, Karl Lutchmayer examines the nature of Romanticism in the 20th century through one of the last great works of programme music, the epic Alpine Symphony.

Autour de Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism at the turn of the century
On the one hand Debussy described these ‘isms’ as ‘useless’. On the other he was thrilled when a critic compared him to Monet! And even in his teens, spurred on by an elder mistress who was a gifted singer, he began to compose songs on the very latest symbolist poetry: an activity he continued until his last years. Set in the context of the music of others around him, in this lecture-recital Professor Richard Langham Smith attempts to undercover his individuality, and present some of the most telling examples of his musical genius.

A(merica) to Z(lonice): an A-Z of the symphonies of Dvořák
Few composers can claim to have played a role in the development of musical nationalism in two different countries; yet across the span of his nine symphonies, Antonín Dvořák did exactly that. From his earliest published essay in the medium (subtitled ‘The Bells of Zlonice’, the town where he studied music as a boy) to his Ninth Symphony ‘From the New World’, Dvořák’s symphonies draw together an intricate network of Slavonic folk rhythms, Schubertian poise, Brahmsian harmonies and Amerindian melodies. Dr Katy Hamilton guides us through Dvořák’s gloriously sun-filled eighth symphony.

Political repression and personal tragedy: the symphonies of Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) lived in comfortable circumstances in Russia until the 1917 Revolution changed everything. The symphony was a favourite form (he wrote 15 in all), but his fifth (1937) was pivotal. While meeting the Communist requirement that music should ‘represent contemporary reality in a musical language comprehensible to The People’, Shostakovich managed also to express his own feelings on the regime. Simon Channing discusses Shostakovich’s position in the wider cultural context (poets, painters, novelists) amidst cataclysmic events in Russia.