Betsy Schwarm sometimes gets so excited when talking about the ins and outs of classical music that she interrupts herself with little asides and cadenzas to underscore her message.
“Passion” may be an overused word, but it perfectly describes how Betsy Schwarm feels about classical music. For about 27 years, Schwarm has been sharing her love for it throughout the Denver metro area with her radio programs, lectures, and books.
In September, Schwarm will teach From the Danube to the Volga: Classical Music of Eastern Europe for DU’s Enrichment Program, which offers short courses open to anyone in the community, simply for the love of learning. She’s excited to talk about a geographic region that doesn’t always get top billing.
“In the time period we’ll be examining, these Eastern European areas were not the bright lights and big cities,” says Schwarm. “We’ll get to look at how these musicians are expressing their unique cultures in their music and how it gives us insights into people at that time.”
Some of these identities are still highly relevant today. Schwarm relates that when she worked as a radio host for KVOD, “the Classical Voice of Denver,” the station’s Ukrainian-American receptionist would enter the control room singing whenever they played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 because she recognized the folk melodies within it. “She’d say, ‘They call it the Little Russian Symphony but these are Ukrainian songs!’”
The class will also look at composers from the Balkans, Poland, the Baltic states, and even Armenia. It will delve into the works of famous composers, such as Chopin, Liszt, Dvořák, and Tchaikovsky, but also some lesser-known creators. Schwarm says that in all her classes she tries to present a mix of recognizable material and less-familiar works.
How the classics still resonate
“Humans have not changed that much in the past 200 years. We’re all still people,” Schwarm points out. “If we take a minute to look at why a piece of music was created, and what the composer was trying to say with it, we can appreciate it. These works don’t all sound the same.”
Schwarm didn’t set out to become a classical music expert. She was raised listening to her parents’ big band music, but came to love classical music in high school and college. Then she landed a job at KVOD 99.5 FM and spent 12 years as a classical radio host. Largely self-taught, she quickly discovered she loved sharing her insights and enthusiasm for the subject.
Over the years, Schwarm has written ten books on classical music, given pre-performance talks at the Colorado Symphony and Opera Colorado, taught at Metropolitan State University, and of course has taught classes through DU’s Enrichment Program for more than a decade. She says the Enrichment Program offers a unique venue for curious learners to get more in-depth knowledge about a subject they’re interested in.
“Everyone’s busy nowadays, but we still love to learn,” Schwarm says. “The Enrichment Program gives me a chance to share not just my insights into what’s special about the music, but also the reasons for my enthusiasm.”