The Symphony

Course No. 7210
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 7210
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Course Overview

The great Bohemian-born composer Gustav Mahler once said, "A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." Over the course of its nearly 300-year life, the symphony has indeed embraced almost every trend to be found in Western concert music.

Humble Beginnings, Unmatched Achievement

The symphony evolved from the 17th-century Italian opera overture and the Baroque ripieno concerto.

By the mid to late 18th century, the symphony became the single most important genre of orchestral music.

In 300 years—with backdrops ranging from the French Revolution to the Soviet Empire, the Enlightenment to the Roaring Twenties—the symphony would arrive at where it stands today: one of the longest lived, and perhaps the most expressively inclusive, genres of instrumental music.

In this series of 24 45-minute lectures, Professor Robert Greenberg guides the listener on a survey of the symphony. You'll listen to selections from the greatest symphonies by many of the greatest composers of the past 300 years. You'll also hear selections from some overlooked works that, undeservedly, have been forgotten by contemporary audiences.

Origins (Lectures 1–2)

The simultaneous development of the orchestra and the opera were crucial to the birth of the symphony as a genre. By the 1730s, the orchestral genre of the Italian-style opera overture had developed to such a point that those overtures were substantial enough to be performed separately from the operas themselves.

The Symphony Emerges (Lectures 3–5)

The earliest true symphonies were exponents of the galant style that emerged in the period between the High Baroque and Viennese Classicism. Chief composers of this period included Sammartini, and two of J. S. Bach's sons, C. P. E. Bach and Johann Christian Bach.

The outstanding Mannheim Court Orchestra paved the way for a great series of symphonists in the 18th century—Stamitz, Richter, Holzbauer, and Cannabich.

By the late 1770s and 1780s, Europe boasted an enormous number of first-rate symphonists, including Gossec, Michael Haydn, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Vanhal, and Boccherini.

Haydn and Mozart: Titans of the Classical Age (Lectures 6–8)

Franz Joseph Haydn wrote at least 108 symphonies. We examine his Symphony no. 1 in D Major (1759), and later symphonies, no. 77 in particular, revealing Haydn's ongoing development as a symphonist.

Haydn's Symphony no. 104, his last symphony, reflects the consummate technical skill of an experienced master—mastery still melded with the fire and passion of youth.

Unlike Haydn, Mozart never made symphonic composition as much of a priority as opera and the piano concerto. Yet he created some of the most important symphonies of the Classical era, among them his Symphony no. 41 in C Major—the Jupiter Symphony. We explore this symphony, which, in the words of one musicologist, "climaxed and fixed an age."

Beethoven, Romanticism, and the Reconciliation with Classicism (Lectures 9–12)

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the single most famous work in the orchestral repertoire—a tale of musical birth and growth, destruction, regrowth, and ultimately, triumph.

The sublime and iconoclastic Beethoven, in Professor Greenberg's words, "came to believe in self-expression and originality above all else a symphony was no longer an aristocratic amusement, but a multifaceted musical statement, an instrumental genre operatic in its degree of contrast, conflict, and resolution."

We study how Schubert's Unfinished B Minor and Great C Major symphonies demonstrated that the lyric and the colorful could coexist with the Beethoven-inspired vision of the symphony as a vehicle for profound self-expression.

In Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz adopts the extreme emotions and drama of the opera house, and explicit, intimately autobiographical narrative, telling the story of a young, unhappy, and ultimately suicidal lover (Berlioz himself). The piece is bound together by a recurring, representative musical theme—the famous fixed idea.

We learn how the symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann merged Classical tradition with elements of Romanticism within very personal and innovative expressive frameworks.

National and Local Development (Lectures 13–22)

France. In the 1860s and 1870s, French composers re-established a tradition of symphonic music in Paris, led by Cesar Franck and Camille Saint-Saens.

Russia. What could Peter Tchaikovsky, a hypersensitive, cross-dressing homosexual with a penchant for pederasty, and Antonin Dvorak, a happily married family man, have in common? Few composers utilized the symphony to explore national identity more than these two extremely different men, drawing on the music of their homelands for inspiration.

Vienna. Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms both achieved fame in Vienna—both were inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But you'll see that is where their similarities end.

Bohemia. Learn how Gustav Mahler's upbringing in a Jewish, German-speaking household in Bohemia intensified his pathological sense of alienation. Mahler's symphonies are, in Greenberg's words, "philosophical tracts, spiritual musings, musical reflections on the great, unanswered questions." We focus on his Symphony no. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection) of 1895.

Scandinavia. The key to Carl Nielsen's music is its directness of expression, inspired by the rustic simplicity of his Danish homeland. Jean Sibelius's Finnish homeland also exerted a strong influence on his creative palette.

Later Russian Development. Nationalism played a crucial role in the 19th-century emergence of a Russian symphonic tradition, with composers such as Glinka, Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Glazunov.

In the 20th century, the "steel-fisted modernist" Prokofiev never ceased to shock and surprise—even with his First Symphony, which, ironically, pays homage to the Classical style.

America. An all-American kid, Charles Ives became one of the 20th century's greatest symphonists, while refusing to take royalties for his work and choosing to make his living as an insurance executive. His Symphony no. 4, his "crowning achievement," epitomizes Ives's transcendental belief in the "interrelation of all things."

Aaron Copland epitomized the pan-American musical spirit of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, remaining the most representative American composer of the 20th century. Samuel Barber's Symphony no. 1 is a beautifully constructed work of great and enduring power.

Discover Roy Harris, one of the pre-eminent American symphonists. Born in a log cabin, Harris created symphonies marked by a primitive simplicity underlain by great emotional depth and expressive sophistication. William Schuman's Third Symphony heralded a period when American composers became accepted, performed, and appreciated in their own country.

Britain. At the end of the 19th century Britain made significant contributions to the international symphonic repertory. While Elgar's symphonic music was not explicitly nationalistic, Vaughn Williams's symphonies drew heavily from England's folk heritage.

Two Concluding Ovations (Lectures 23–24)

Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony of 1948 is the sole symphony Messiaen produced. It is organized around 10 movements, based on Hindu scripture, and united by a number of themes that reappear from movement to movement. It is a unique contribution to the history of the symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich was used and abused by the Soviet powers during much of his life. Somehow, he survived. His Tenth Symphony, composed immediately after Stalin's death in 1953, became, in Professor Greenberg's words, "a model for what the new, post-Stalin Soviet music might aspire to be—a more personally expressive, less explicitly programmatic work, one that both engaged and challenged its listeners."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    Let's Take It From the Top!
    Beginning in the orchestral overtures of opera and the concertos of Baroque Italy, the symphony would emerge as its own genre in the 18th century. x
  • 2
    The Concerto and the Orchestra
    The simultaneous development of the orchestra and the opera were crucial to the birth of the symphony as a genre. By the 1730s, the orchestral genre of the Italian-style opera overture had developed to such a point that those overtures were substantial enough to be performed separately from the operas themselves. x
  • 3
    The Pre-Classical Symphony
    The earliest true symphonies were exponents of the so-called galant style that emerged in the period between the high Baroque and Viennese Classicism. The chief composers of this period included Giovanni Sammartini, and two of J. S. Bach's sons, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach. x
  • 4
    Mannheim
    In the unlikely city of Mannheim, Germany, the formation of the outstanding Mannheim Court Orchestra paved the way for a great series of symphonists in the 18th century—Stamitz, Richter, Holzbauer, and Cannabich. x
  • 5
    Classical Masters
    By the late 1770s and 1780s, Europe boasted an enormous number of first-rate symphonists, including Francois-Joseph Gossec, Michael Haydn, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Johann Baptist Vanhal, and Luigi Boccherini. x
  • 6
    Franz Joseph Haydn, Part 1
    Franz Joseph Haydn wrote at least 108 symphonies. We examine his Symphony no. 1 in D Major (1759), and later symphonies, no. 77 in particular, revealing Haydn's ongoing development as a symphonist. x
  • 7
    Franz Joseph Haydn, Part 2
    Inspired by the Sturm und Drang movement in the early 1770s, Haydn's symphonies begin to reflect experimentation with minor keys, abrupt changes of dynamics, and a greater degree of thematic contrast. x
  • 8
    Mozart
    Unlike Haydn, Mozart never made symphonic composition as much of a priority as opera and the piano concerto. Yet he created some of the most important symphonies of the classical era, among them his Symphony no. 41 in C Major—the Jupiter Symphony. x
  • 9
    Beethoven
    The sublime and iconoclastic Beethoven, in Professor Greenberg's words, "came to believe in self-expression and originality above all else. ... A symphony was no longer an aristocratic amusement, but a multifaceted musical statement, an instrumental genre operatic in its degree of contrast, conflict, and resolution." x
  • 10
    Schubert
    Schubert's Unfinished B Minor and Great C Major Symphonies demonstrated that the lyric and the colorful could coexist with the Beethoven-inspired vision of the symphony as a vehicle for profound self-expression. x
  • 11
    Berlioz and the Symphonie fantastique
    In his Symphonie fantastique, Hector Berlioz adopts the extreme emotions and drama of the opera house, and explicit, intimately autobiographical narrative, all bound together by a recurring, representative musical theme—the famous "fixed idea." The personally and creatively controversial Berlioz goes on to inspire a rising generation of Romantic radicals. x
  • 12
    Mendelssohn and Schumann
    The symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann merged Classical tradition with elements of Romanticism within very personal and innovative expressive frameworks. x
  • 13
    Franck, Saint-Saens, and the Symphony in France
    In the 1860s and 1870s, French composers re-established a tradition of symphonic music in Paris, led by Cesar Franck and Camille Saint-Saens. x
  • 14
    Nationalism and the Symphony
    Few composers used the symphony to explore national identity more than Peter Tchaikovsky and Antonin Dvorak—two extremely different men, yet both conservative Romantics drawing on the music of their homelands for substance and inspiration. x
  • 15
    Brahms, Bruckner, and the Viennese Symphony
    Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms both achieved fame in Vienna—and both were inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But that's where their similarities end. x
  • 16
    Gustav Mahler
    Gustav Mahler's symphonies are, in Robert Greenberg's words, "philosophical tracts, spiritual musings, musical reflections on the great, unanswered questions." We focus on his Symphony no. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection) of 1895. x
  • 17
    Nielsen and Sibelius
    The key to Carl Nielsen's music is its directness of expression, inspired by the rustic simplicity of his Danish homeland. Jean Sibelius's Finnish homeland also exerted a strong influence on his creative palette, in which musical nationalism was expressed with a highly individual flavor. x
  • 18
    The Symphony in Russia
    Nationalism played a crucial role in the 19th-century emergence of a Russian symphonic tradition, with composers such as Glinka, Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Glazunov. In the 20th century, the "steel-fisted modernist" Prokofiev never ceased to shock and surprise—even with his First Symphony, which, ironically, pays homage to the Classical style. x
  • 19
    Charles Ives
    Charles Ives synthesized classical training, a love for American music of every kind, the New England of his childhood, radical experimentation, and his abject belief that music was the common language that bound together all humanity. x
  • 20
    Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber
    Aaron Copland epitomized the pan-American musical spirit of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, remaining the most representative American composer of the 20th century. Samuel Barber's Symphony no. 1 is a beautifully constructed work of great and enduring power. x
  • 21
    Roy Harris and William Schuman
    Roy Harris created symphonies marked by a primitive simplicity underlain by great emotional depth and expressive sophistication. William Schuman's Third Symphony heralded a period when American composers became accepted, performed, and appreciated in their own country to a previously unprecedented degree. x
  • 22
    The Twentieth-Century British Symphony
    It was not until the end of the 19th century that Britain would make a significant contribution to the international symphonic repertory. While Edward Elgar's symphonic music was not explicitly nationalistic, Ralph Vaughn Williams's symphonies did draw heavily from England's folk heritage. x
  • 23
    Olivier Messiaen and Turangalila!
    Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila, organized around a number of cyclic themes, was hugely controversial—and a magnificent achievement, completely unique in the symphonic repertory. x
  • 24
    Dmitri Shostakovich and His Tenth Symphony
    Dmitri Shostakovich was used and abused by the Soviet powers during much of his life. Somehow, he survived—even as his Tenth Symphony made dangerously implicit criticisms of the Soviet government. 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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Reviews

The Symphony is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Symphony I live in Northern California and ride my bike for hours through the vineyards. It was a total joy to listen and hear about these great composers as I rode with my AirPods. I kept listening as I stopped for a sip of wine. Good wine! Good music! A good ride!
Date published: 2020-07-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Symphony Although we have finished watching/listening to The Symphony yet we feel that we can provide this review. We are very impressed with Professor Greenberg's knowledge, love for music and his enthusiasm, obviously a master in his own right. He includes a lot of musical excerpts which we enjoy, it makes his lecture come to life. The only slight drawback is that my wife finds the decor of the room distracting and the silk flowers inappropriate. A more simple background would be preferred. Thank you for a great course.
Date published: 2020-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Symphony Excellent. The professor is suburb, his presentations absorbing and very informative. An extraordinary value.
Date published: 2020-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Even if you think you already know ... I was brought up on classical music. I had access to a large number of recordings (78 RPM) as a child, and my father wished that I had taken up music as a career. So I thought I already knew something when I saw Robert Greenberg's listings in The Great Courses catalogs. Then I finally "met" him via a Facebook Live event he did recently. That did it. I realized this man was a gold mine of knowledge. I was not disappointed, and in fact, I just ordered another of Greenberg's courses. These lectures are a little frustrating because of the very limited time (45 minutes) available in each of the 24 lectures. And Greenberg obviously felt this as well. Nevertheless, what he was able to do, along with providing all that background information, was to whet my appetite. Just one example: This morning, I "attended" the 23d lecture, on Olivier Messiaen. Years ago, I had somehow decided that I simply would never grow to appreciate this composer's music. And now I'm baffled at my earlier reaction, and look forward to listening to the Turangalila symphony in its entirety.
Date published: 2020-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and very enjoyable This was an extremely well-done course, probably my favorite of the courses I have watched by Dr. Robert Greenberg. Part of that was because of the subject matter. Symphonies have long been my favorite musical form. As Dr. Greenberg described in detail and played examples from beloved symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc., I felt as if I was visiting with and hearing about cherished dear friends from my boyhood. It was informative, refreshing, enjoyable, and very well presented. Bravo, Dr. Greenberg! You did well! The narrative was engaging, the humor just right without being overdone (as is sometimes the case in a number of his other courses). I learned things I never knew about a number of my favorite composers and favorite symphonies. The material was so interesting that I went through the entire course very quickly. Like a cliff-hanger movie or TV series, I couldn’t wait to hear what would be said next. For example, the lecture on Berlioz was absolutely fascinating. The explanation of what lay behind his “Symphonie fantastique” is just about the best explanation I have ever encountered to explain the heart and soul of Romanticism in music. Wow, that Berlioz was weird! There were a few things that I would have changed if it was up to me (which it is not). These changes mostly reflect my own preferences. For what they are worth, here are a few things I would change/improve. I am a big fan of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. It was disconcerting to hear his name mispronounced. The first syllable of “Bruckner” is properly pronounced like the English word “brook.” It does NOT rhyme with the English word, “duck.” Every time Dr. Greenberg mentioned Bruckner’s name (which he did quite often in his lecture on the great symphonist), I wanted to cringe. It was a needless distraction. Then, when in passing, Wagner’s opera, “Tannhäuser,” was mentioned, I also cringed. The umlaut is there for a reason! Those of us who know sufficient German know that “Tannhäuser” does not rhyme with the dog’s name, “Bowser.” Minor points? Yes, but distracting enough to me that it made it hard for me to focus on that lecture. As a big Bruckner fan, I have a much more positive view of Bruckner’s music than does Dr. Greenberg, but at least the humble composer’s name should be pronounced properly. I was very pleasantly surprised by the lectures on American symphonists. Musically, I am a late 19th century person at heart. I enjoy some 20th century composers but I retain a suspicion of 20th century music generally. The treatments of Ives, Barber, Schuman and Harris were very pleasant surprises. Vaughan Williams and Elgar are “old friends,” so no great surprises there. I also greatly enjoyed the lecture about Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, a work I have come to respect and enjoy in recent years. The only one I would have cut out completely or at least edited sharply would have been that of Messiaen. The little of his work to which I had previously been exposed did not impress me. The lecture on his “Turangalila” Symphony, though interesting, did not change my view of his music. Why was an entire lecture devoted to Messiaen? Yes, this is my own prejudice. But instead of Messiaen, I would rather have heard a lecture on other symphonies by other composers. I realize that in a survey course, much that is wonderful must be left out. I just wish that some of that wonderful music could have been featured rather than “Turangalila.” Yes, my own view and perhaps somebody reading this will feel that “Turangalila” is wonderful. But it made me want to scurry back to a Brahms symphony for comfort. A few comments on the Russians. I greatly enjoyed the discussion of Tschaikowsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony. I have loved that symphony for years and I was glad to see it given its due. I would also like to have heard about Tschaikowsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, which I regard as his best and one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Perhaps that is covered in Dr. Greenberg’s course on Tschaikowsky. I was glad to see Balakirev’s First Symphony discussed. I was very interested to learn of Balakirev’s willful ignorance of formal music theory. Yet, the First Symphony is a particular favorite of mine. It conveys a depth, a pathos, a very “Russian” sounding beauty, especially in its Andante, which, in spite of or perhaps because of its technical deficiencies, makes it, in my opinion, a masterpiece. Dr. Greenberg did play excerpts of it, for which I was glad. But it deserves higher praise than he gave it. I would like to have seen Rachmaninoff’s symphonies discussed, either the untamed First or the hauntingly beautiful Second. Both are worthy parts of the repertoire. I was glad to see at least a little discussion of Glazunov and a little discussion of his Fifth Symphony. Glazunov should be much better known in the West than he is known. He wrote a lot of excellent symphonic work. Shostakovich’s life was certainly worth the time spent on it and his Tenth Symphony, as I mentioned before, is a worthy work. All in all, the criticisms, in the context of the course as a whole, are relatively “minor”. This is overall an excellent course, one I recommend enthusiastically, whether the pieces are new to the viewer or are old friends. It is worth every moment and every cent invested in it. I look forward to watching this course again!
Date published: 2020-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert Greenberg knows his stuff! Professor Greenberg may be a good talker, but he knows his stuff! His lectures are enjoyable to listen to and very educational. He goes into the background of each time period and brings the student (listener) into the contextual forefront so one learns to recognise and appreciate the musical work in its place within history. He is a brilliant, animated orator.
Date published: 2020-02-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor presentation I consider this course poorly presented for a number of reasons. 1. Prof Greenberg jumps from one topic to another. There is no continuity, no rational progression of the development of symphonic music. One example he'll talk about opera and the next example about a concerto, then about another topic, then back to one of the previous topics. Instead of a sequential development of symphonic music, there is a lot of back and forth jumping. 2. Too many details about specific items that are connected with composers, and not enough about the development and understanding of the nuances in symphonic music. 3. Prof Greenberg is trying to be entertaining in his melodramatic voices and shouts. Personally I find it annoying. Why not present it in a pleasant voice without trying to be dramatic and without screaming? He is not trying to entertain kinder gardners.
Date published: 2019-12-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I have still only listened to the first few lextures in this series, but I am loving them. I have listened to other Robert Greenberg courses, which I found uniformly excellent. I am gaining a new appreciation for classicl era composers and finding out about some I was totally unaware of. I am looking forward to the rest of the series. I didn't really need video, but I wasn't able to purchase CDs.
Date published: 2019-11-17
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