Music as a Mirror of History

Course No. 7340
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 7340
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Explore how music, reflects, and reacts to, historical events.
  • numbers Study the profound works of Beethoven in the context of military victories and defeats under Napoleon.
  • numbers Uncover the story behind Vienna's beloved Radetzky March, which reflects the last glory of the Austrian Empire.
  • numbers Trace the Depression-era movement of populism in American art, and learn how Copland's Symphony No. 3captured the euphoric mood of the country.

Course Overview

“What I write is my commentary on what is happening around me… my music is my commentary.” Henryk Górecki

In the worlds of painting and literature, it’s easy to see where history and art intersect. In Picasso’s Guernica or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it’s evident how works of art mirror and participate in the life of their times, sometimes even playing a role in historical events.

But what about music? What is the intersection—if any—between the influential works of Western concert music and the historical times that surrounded them?

In Music as a Mirror of History, Great Courses favorite Professor Robert Greenberg of San Francisco Performances returns with a fascinating and provocative premise: Despite the abstractness and the universality of music—and our habit of listening to it divorced from any historical context—music is a “mirror” of the historical setting in which it was created. Indeed, certain works of music do not just mirror the general spirit of their time and place, but can even explicitly evoke specific historical events. As Professor Greenberg demonstrates in this course, music carries a rich spectrum of social, cultural, historical, and philosophical information, all grounded in the life and experience of the composer—if you’re aware of what you’re listening to. In these lectures, you’ll explore how composers convey such explicit information, evoking specific states of mind and giving voice to communal emotions, all colored by their own personal experience. Music lovers and history enthusiasts alike will be enthralled by this exploration of how momentous compositions have responded to—and inspired—pivotal events.

Consider the following:

  • The writing of Handel’s celebrated Water Music (1714) was intimately connected with the incredible story of how a German prince of Brunswick-Lüneberg became King George I of England—whose patronage of Handel produced a series of masterpieces created to glorify the English royal court.
  • Frédéric Chopin’s iconic Revolutionary Etude for piano (1831) was written in the composer’s dark despair over a failed uprising in Warsaw against Poland’s Russian overlords, an event which left a permanent mark on the character of Chopin’s music.
  • Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (1946) expresses the euphoric postwar spirit of the American people, victorious after both the Great Depression and a globe-spanning battle against fascism.

In this unique and eye-opening course, Professor Greenberg presents an in-depth survey of musical works that were written in direct response to contemporary historical events—events that both shaped the composers’ lives and inspired the creation of the works in question. In a novel departure from his previous courses, which explore how classical masterpieces work as music per se, here Professor Greenberg reveals, in stunning and poignant detail, the ways in which history influenced some of the great (and not so great!) works of music, and how they in turn influenced history.

Ranging widely across the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the lectures immerse you in historical moments such as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian-Ottoman conflict, the Hungarian nationalist movement, the movement for Italian unification, the economic ascent of the U.S., the Stalinist regime in the USSR, and World Wars I and II. Across the arc of the course, you’ll see how these events were felt and expressed in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, and many others, including modern masters such as Janáček, Górecki, and Crumb.

Incorporating superlative musical excerpts in each lesson, these 24 sumptuously detailed lectures offer you a revelatory look at history through the lens of music. The result is deep and enlightening insight into both, and a view of the remarkable interface between the events of history and a musical repertoire which stands among the most sublime creations of our civilization.

A Vividly Different Window on Music—and on History

This is as much a course about history as it is about music, and anyone with an interest in history will find it both enthralling and richly informative. The course reminds us that history is not only available to us through the study of events, but also through many diverse forms of human expression, including great music. For example, Mozart’s Abduction from the Harem vividly reflects Europe’s centuries-long conflict and simultaneous fascination with the Ottoman Empire, and you’ll find this in both the opera’s text and in Mozart’s use of specific, stereotypically “Turkish” musical devices and figurations.

To know the historical context of these great works opens up an entirely new level of understanding and appreciation of music—music that was meant to be not only aesthetically and spiritually satisfying, but also socially, historically, and politically meaningful.

At the heart of the inquiry, you’ll discover how history and music intertwine in works such as:

  • Beethoven’s Farewell Sonata (1810): Witness the dramatic unfolding of the French Revolutionary Wars, and the escalating military conflicts that pitted Napoleon against the Austrian Habsburg Empire. Observe how this great sonata for piano expresses Beethoven’s range of emotions over the absence of his esteemed patron as Napoleon’s army vanquished Vienna.
  • Berlioz and de L’isle’s La Marseillaise (1830): Trace the complex and colorful history that made Paris the hotbed of European revolutionary activity. Learn how Rouget de L’isle’s beloved marching song La Marseillaise echoed across France from 1792 to the anti-Bourbon revolution of 1830, when Hector Berlioz set it epically for double chorus, children’s choir, and extended orchestra.
  • Verdi’s Nabucco (1842): Discover the historic events that linked Verdi’s 1842 opera inextricably with the Italian movement for unification, and consider how the Italian people’s passionate embrace of Verdi’s music swept the composer into a reluctant but ultimately committed role as a politician in the birth of the Italian nation.
  • Gottschalk’s The Union (1862): Enter the life of one of the most dazzling and outlandish of American composers—that of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a world-conquering piano virtuoso, composer of genius, and fierce anti-slavery advocate during the Civil War, whose unflagging efforts on behalf of the Northern cause included this galvanizing, patriotic concert piece.
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (1907): Uncover how Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic opera functioned as thinly-veiled political polemic, and grasp how both its allegorical narrative and musical setting mocked and satirized the Russian military’s disastrous defeat by the Japanese in 1905, the iron hand of the Imperial government, and the beleaguered figure of Tsar Nicholas II.
  • George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970): Trace the genesis of this contemporary masterpiece in the Cold War political maneuvering that led the U.S. into Vietnam and an era of bitter protest. In Crumb’s visionary string quartet, experience the composer’s searing musical language that evokes the battlefield horrors and the American public’s sense of waste and grief.

A One-Of-A-Kind Learning Experience

The unique manner of inquiry of this course offers you an analysis of history that is not available anywhere else—an analysis that synthesizes two fields of knowledge with astonishing detail and depth, requiring an expert historian, on the one hand, and an expert musicologist, on the other. As the lectures consistently reveal, Professor Greenberg is both.

In the lecture on Mily Balakirev’s Symphony No. 1, you’ll observe how the 19th–century Russian movement toward “expository” music writing, as well as rejection of pre-existing musical forms, was profoundly linked to notions of the Russian “national character”—an example, as Professor Greenberg says, of how “a musical syntax can become part of a national myth.” Later, you’ll take the measure of the nightmare of Stalinism, and of how Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 expresses the experience of the millions who were destroyed by the regime. And, in Henryk Górecki’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” you’ll see how the composer used ancient musical material with deep cultural resonance—history in sound—to reflect unforgettably on the modern tragedy that befell Poland in World War II.

Standing on the shoulders of Professor Greenberg’s catalogue of celebrated courses, Music as a Mirror of History offers further compelling insights into our musical tradition. By demonstrating the deep interconnections between lived human experience—that is, history—and musical expression, Professor Greenberg speaks incisively to both the nature of great art, and to what is perhaps the greatest gift of the art form in question: the ability of music to speak to dimensions of our awareness that are unreachable by words or visual symbols.

In Music as a Mirror of History, you’ll explore how music, in its singular capacity to evoke and reflect experience, can bring us not only transcendent beauty and joy, but also understanding, compassion, and meaning amid even the most terrible of human events. Join us for an unparalleled look into the power and scope of musical art.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    Music and History, Madrigals and Maps
    Begin to contemplate the connections between composers and specific historical events. Grasp how Thomas Morley’s madrigals in praise of Queen Elizabeth I engaged with English national self-perception and myth, and how Leon Janáček and Frédéric Chopin responded to political events in key works. Take account of how the magnified emotions stirred by human conflicts feed artistic creation, and how artists have managed to convert the most terrible of human experiences into transcendent art. x
  • 2
    Handel: Water Music (1714)
    Discover how music and history intersected in the remarkable career of George Frederick Handel. Trace the extraordinary circumstances in which the German prince George Ludwig of Brunswick-Lüneberg became King George I of England. Learn about his patronage of Handel, whose phenomenal success as a composer in England led to the creation of numerous musical masterpieces written for the English royals, including the composer’s iconic Water Music, written for a state procession in 1717. x
  • 3
    Mozart: The Abduction from the Harem (1782)
    Here, learn how political events in Europe directly shaped Mozart's music and personal circumstances. Investigate the long-term threat posed to Europe by the Ottoman Empire, and observe the paradoxical Turkish vogue in European art and fashion. Study the Turkish elements in both the plot and musical content of Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Harem, and grasp how the economic fallout from Austria's war with the Ottomans contributed to Mozart's decline and death. x
  • 4
    Haydn: Mass in the Time of War (1797)
    Take stock of how events that began in revolutionary Paris inspired the expressive content of Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War. Delve into the dramatic unfolding of the French Revolution, the subsequent rise of Napoleon, and the impending threat his war machine posed to Vienna. Hear the dramatic, martial character of Haydn’s mass within this context—a triumphant musical exhortation to victory against Napoleon’s invading army. x
  • 5
    Beethoven: The Farewell Sonata (1810)
    In the first of two lectures on Beethoven, learn how the composer identified, almost mystically, with the figure of Napoleon. Study the events of the continuing clashes after the French Revolution, and witness the progressive military conflicts between Napoleon and the Austrian Habsburg empire. Grasp the highly personal meanings in Beethoven's Farewell Sonata, which depicts the departure and absence of the composer's aristocratic patron in the face of Napoleon's 1809 march on Vienna. x
  • 6
    Beethoven: Wellington's Victory (1813)
    The Napoleonic Wars—and Beethoven’s conflicted feelings toward Napoleon—were elemental in another important episode in the composer’s life. Trace Beethoven’s increasing animosity toward the French, and observe the unfolding debacle of Napoleon’s Peninsular War against Portugal and Spain. Learn how Beethoven came to compose Wellington’s Victory, celebrating the British commander’s triumph over the French at Vitoria, which was both a phenomenal success for Beethoven and a major aberration in his musical output. x
  • 7
    Berlioz/de L'Isle: "La Marseillaise" (1830)
    In this lecture, envision the evolution of Paris from the 17th century to the 19th, and grasp how the city became a magnet for artists and intellectuals, and the spawning ground for the age of European revolutions. Witness the political events from the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following Napoleon's downfall to the revolutionary movement of 1830, which inspired Berlioz's monumental setting of the marching song that ultimately became the French national anthem. x
  • 8
    Chopin: Étude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12 (1831)
    In 1831, a failed political insurrection in Warsaw left a permanent mark on the music and spirit of Frédéric Chopin. Beginning in the 17th century, explore the history of invasions, “partitions,” and occupations of Poland by neighboring European powers, which effectively destroyed the Polish Commonwealth. Learn about Chopin’s early life, and delve into the doomed “November Uprising” of the Poles against their Russian overlords that fueled the writing of his passionate, revolutionary etude for piano. x
  • 9
    Glinka: A Life for the Tsar (1836)
    Glinka's A Life for the Tsar was a landmark in the creation of Russian language opera. Learn about the origins of the opera's storyline in Russia's Time of Troubles," an era of discord and invasions, and consider Glinka's role in a community dedicated to bringing Russian art and literature to prominence. Through compelling excerpts from the hugely successful opera, observe how A Life for the Tsar embodied the pride and patriotism of the Russian people. x
  • 10
    Strauss Sr.: Radetzky March (1848)
    Uncover the story behind Vienna's beloved Radetzky March, which reflects the last glory of the Austrian Empire. As background, track the historical triumphs and tribulations of the Habsburg dynasty, leading to the 1848 rebellion in which the musical Johann Strausses, Senior and Junior, took opposing sides. Experience Strauss Senior's rousing March in its historical setting, celebrating the Field Marshal Count Radetzky, whose military exploits made him a hero to the imperial old guard. x
  • 11
    Brahms: Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25 (1861)
    As the prelude to a fateful episode in the life of Johannes Brahms, explore the 19th-century Hungarian nationalist movement, highlighting the revolutionary initiatives of Lajos Kossuth, icon of the 1848 revolt against Austrian domination. Witness how Brahms's meeting with the Hungarian refugee and violinist Eduard RemEnyi ignited the composer's longtime love affair with Hungarian gypsy music, epitomized in the electrifying finale to his G Minor Piano Quartet. x
  • 12
    Gottschalk: The Union (1862)
    Louis Moreau Gottschalk was the first truly American composer. Delve into his early life in New Orleans, and observe the richly diverse cultures that shaped his music, encompassing European, Caribbean, Latin American and African influences. Follow his remarkable career as a touring composer-piano virtuoso, his tireless work for the Northern cause during the Civil War, and the events which sparked the creation of his celebrated and patriotic piano piece, The Union. x
  • 13
    Verdi: Nabucco (1842)
    In the creation of his opera Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi played a key role in the movement for Italian unification. Study the series of 19th-century rebellions against Austrian rule that culminated in the two Italian wars of independence. Observe how the music and poetry of Nabucco came to be identified with the Italian people's quest for nationhood, ultimately leading the composer into a direct participation in the political process that forged an independent Italy. x
  • 14
    Wagner: The Ring (1876)
    Wagner's operatic cycle The Ring functions metaphorically as a caustic critique of 19th-century European society. Learn about Wagner's embrace of anti-capitalist rhetoric in 1848 and 1849, a time when revolutions broke out across Europe, and his writing of revolutionary articles and manifestos. Grasp how the Ring's human and godlike characters represent the ills of industrial societies, and how Wagner envisioned a new "age of man" which would follow the demise of the European monarchies. x
  • 15
    Dvořák: From the New World Symphony (1893)
    Explore the extraordinary industrial and economic rise of the United States in the 19th century, a phenomenon celebrated in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, one of the most spectacular world’s fairs ever held. Witness the historic participation of Antonin Dvořák, and uncover the impact on American music of Dvořák’s residency in the U.S., which produced his symphony entitled From the New World, and pointed toward the creation of a uniquely American musical tradition. x
  • 16
    Balakirev: Symphony No. 1 (1898)
    Delve into the 19th-century movement within Russia to create a distinctively Russian national art. With his Symphony No. 1 as a point of reference, learn how Mily Balakirev personified the quest for an authentic Russian musical aesthetic. Observe how this quest reflected a geopolitical conflict within Russia between pro-Western and "Slavophile" schools of thought, and see how Balakirev gathered around him a group of young composers who would change the face of Western concert music. x
  • 17
    Janáček: Piano Sonata I.X.1905 (1906)
    The life and music of composer Leoš Janáček were profoundly shaped by the longtime enmity in Czech lands between the Germans and the Czechs. Study the history of German/Czech relations dating from the 17th century, and witness the Czech national revival of the 19th century, of which Janáček was a passionate advocate. Learn how the events of a political demonstration in 1905 inspired Janáček’s Piano Sonata 1, a highly personal expression of wonder, rage, and grief. x
  • 18
    Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (1907)
    This lecture reveals Rimsky-Korsakov's classic opera, The Golden Cockerel, as daring political commentary, directly reflecting the events surrounding the first Russian Revolution. Study the opera's fairy-tale plot, in parallel with the drama of Russia's devastating military encounter with the Japanese in 1905, and anti-Tsarist rebellion within Russia. Hear key excerpts from the opera, and observe how the opera's narrative works as a thinly veiled indictment of Tsar Nicholas II, his government, and the Russian military. x
  • 19
    Holst: Ode to Death (1919)
    Gustav Holst's luminous Ode to Death responded to the immeasurable suffering of World War I. Learn about the underlying causes of the conflict, and grasp how the horrific human cost of the war reflected a tragic clash between archaism and modernity. In Ode to Death, experience the melding of Holst's music with Walt Whitman's elegiac text, and study the musical means whereby Holst evokes a haunting impression of unfathomable loss and waste. x
  • 20
    Berg: Wozzeck (1922)
    In assessing Berg's operatic masterwork, investigate the aftermath of World War I in Germany and its imprint on the opera-a psychological climate of rage, disillusion, and alienation in the wake of the war's barbarity and hypocrisy. Observe how Berg's own wartime experience linked him with the life of Franz Wozzeck, the opera's protagonist. In excerpts from the opera's first and third acts, hear how Berg achieves a searing musical portrayal of Wozzeck's disordered mind. x
  • 21
    Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (1962)
    Take the measure of the terrors of the Stalinist regime in Soviet Russia, and uncover how many people, including Dimitri Shostakovich, were forced to lead double lives. Learn about the composition of the Symphony during the post-Stalin "Thaw," a less repressive period, and consider the composer's use of texts by courageous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In the Symphony's powerful textures, grasp how the music speaks for all those who walked the line between self-preservation and speaking the truth, thereby risking personal annihilation. x
  • 22
    Copland: Symphony No. 3 (1946)
    Trace the Depression-era movement of populism in American art, based in the notion that high art should speak to the broad, general population, and learn how Copland's Symphony No. 3 captured the euphoric mood of the country following victories over the Depression, fascism, and Japanese imperialism. Note also how the artistic politics of the postwar decades relegated the Symphony to temporary obscurity in an era that sought to purge music of self-expressive abandon and nationalistic spirit. x
  • 23
    Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 (1976)
    As context for this modern symphonic masterpiece, investigate the nearly inconceivable atrocities committed against Poland during World War II by Hitler's and Stalin's regimes, encompassing efforts by both aggressors to destroy Polish nationhood. Learn about Henryk Gorecki's life in wartime and in the repressive era that followed, and hear the sublimely beautiful Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" that expresses the Polish experience through sung prayers and folk songs about mothers and the loss of their children." x
  • 24
    Crumb: Black Angels (1970)
    Conclude with George Crumb's passionate anti-war string quartet. Trace the backdrop of its writing in the political climate and policy decisions that led the U.S. into the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Observe how the attempted U.S. policy of containment" unraveled tragically in the face of the implacable will of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. In the extraordinary sonic textures of Black Angels, hear how Crumb captures the futility and heartbreak of this dark episode in American life." x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Music as a Mirror of History is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 140.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Analysis Prof. Greenberg does a masterful job of tying beloved musical compositions to the historical events going on when they were created. I learned a lot, as the course added an important dimension to the music I love.
Date published: 2020-08-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from History! The history lessons are well-told, almost as if Dr. Greenberg were more interested in the history than in the music part of his presentation. To me, that's the only drawback to this set of lectures. I would have appreciated more music!
Date published: 2020-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! I’ve listened to every one of Professor Greenberg’s Teaching Company courses. He is consistently outstanding. His style and sometimes off-beat sense of humor may not be for everyone, but it certainly works for me. If he gave a course on beetle dung, I’d probably buy that too. Unlike his other courses, this one is less about music and more about history. The lectures are probably 80-90% history, and 10-20% music. I’ve taught history at the college level, and I still learned a lot from this course’s very wide historical sweep. What little musical technical knowledge I have comes mostly from Professor Greenberg’s other Teaching Company courses, but it’s not needed here. The snippets of music are all too brief, to illustrate the connections being made with the history and the other points in the lecture. If anything, those snippets left me wanting to hear more, and will inspire me to seek out some of these pieces for further listening. Altogether, an outstanding course.
Date published: 2020-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely Fascinating Robert Greenburg presents in his outstandingly entertaining manner the fascinating impulses behind the music compositions you grew up hearing in the background or if a musician what you actually studied and practiced. If you are a music history novice, or a history aficionado, you will be thoroughly entertained by this thought provoking series of presentations.
Date published: 2020-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wish there were more courses combining 2 genres The setting of various pieces of music in their historical context made me appreciate the music much more. Music that I would have turned off when hearing it for the first time, without knowing the context, became more appealing and worthy of a listen. The proportion of time allocated to the history/background vs the music/author was about right.
Date published: 2019-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Professor Greenberg presents historical data and links with musicians and their music in a manner that not only informs but entertains and consumes many evenings with outstanding enjoyment.
Date published: 2019-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun to watch! This instructor is not only knowledgeable about what he's teaching, but he's truly enjoyable to watch! He is animated and makes the teachings relate-able to nearly any generation that is watching. It is much more a focus on history than music and composers but for anyone who had to take a Music History class, this course picks up where that left off and then fills in all the gaps. Wonderful, marvelous, and I'm so glad I've watched it!
Date published: 2019-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Novel approach Professor Greenberg took a novel approach with this course. It was, as are all his courses, very informative.
Date published: 2019-06-20
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