Music as a Mirror of History

Discover the fascinating ways in which great works of music have interacted with historical events, in this eye-opening course taught by a celebrated composer and music historian.
Music as a Mirror of History is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 148.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from History behind the Music I'll start by saying my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed this course. We were sorry to get to the final lecture. One of the best aspects of it is that it doesn't focus on the most famous pieces about which many of us know a little history. Even with a well-known composer like Beethoven, the work that is focused on is less well-known. Buyers should know that the lectures are 80% history and 20% music. That is, you are not going to hear a lot of music, but rather the deep political, social, and personal composer's history that resulted in the work. You do listen to musical excerpts that illustrate the lecture points, but sometimes only in the last few minutes. That fact upended our expectations, but we are history buffs so we adjusted and enjoyed. The professor also sometimes sits at the piano to make a particular point. We find the Napoleonic Era fascinating, so didn't mind that there were probably 3-4 lectures that rehashed this time period, but always with a different end goal. I am a professor myself, so I understand why Greenberg inserts a humorous line here and there, even if some are "groaners." Professor Greenberg has an enormous depth of historical and musical knowledge and he delivers in a fairly fast paced style with good voice emphasis. Some might find the minutiae of historical detail a little too much, and I will agree in a few places it is, but that does not change my overall opinion of the lecturer or the course. We used the DVD version, but audio would work just as well.
Date published: 2021-05-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mostly Prof. Greenberg's opinions It was a disappointing course because in most of the lectures, Prof. Greenberg did not clearly separate historical facts from his own personal & political opinions. Historical facts which did not support his opinions were omitted. This is a very common fault these days. Also didn't care for his monochrome attire. However, he did speak very well & is obviously an expert in all fields of music.
Date published: 2021-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beyond what I expected Dr. Greenberg is not only thoroughly versed in music history but his inclusion of world history with music is outstanding. The in depth presentation requires listening, reflecting and listening again to gain all his information. His delivery of the material is the best...wish I had him in college as a professor!
Date published: 2021-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As someone who loves music and history, this course immediately appealed to me. Professor Greenburg includes an interesting combination of well-known and less-prominent composers and historical events. I particularly enjoyed his occasional humorous asides.
Date published: 2021-04-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More history than music I bought it for the music, but I kept watching for the entertaining presentation of historical moments.
Date published: 2021-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting Overlay of History and Music This course is a very interesting juxtaposition of the history at the time a composer lived and his writings. I loved hearing about what in the world influenced him in the creation of his masterpiece. Moreover, it gave me an in-depth appreciation of history as well.
Date published: 2021-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What Makes Music Come Alive? Context See the little square impressions on my face? That’s from me banging my head on my keyboard over all the reviews complaining “Not enough music!” Look. It’s a course, not a concert. You want the music, go buy the recordings. You want to learn about the music, you want to appreciate the music, you want to understand the milieu and the mentality that produced the music, then get this course. The title says it all: Music as a Mirror of History. Greenberg has put together a remarkable course that fills a yawning gap in music studies: Where did the music come from? What was going on in the composer’s world that led him to produce this piece of music? And boy, does Greenberg deliver. What’s the real story behind Handel’s Water Music, Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, Dvorak’s New World symphony? What was going on between the Ottoman Empire and Austria that would make Mozart set an opera in Turkey? Why would Rimsky-Korsakov get in trouble over an opera based on a fairy tale? Who was this Radetzky whose Strauss march you can’t resist clapping along to? Who is Wagner really depicting in the Ring cycle, and what were the connections to German society and politics that his audience got perfectly well but fly right past you and me? My only beef is Greenberg’s misplaced confidence in his pronunciations. He overcomplicates Russian every time. He cites a Russian folk song meaning “Around the Bush,” then renders it “Krug kuska,” which would mean “circle of the hunk of bread.” He speaks of the Russian romantic predilection for “dzhervzh hav noast.” Dr Greenberg! If you can’t say “der-zhav-nost,” for the love of Balakirev just say “nationalism.” Some of his Greenberg's knowledge gaps are surprising. He thinks post-Soviet Russians drink cleaning fluid (they do not), that Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956 was “anything but secret” (in the Soviet Union it most certainly was). He thinks that "kulak" refers to “a class of peasant.” Kulak (“fist”) was an epithet, a slur. It was levelled against any peasant who committed the capital crime of failing to surrender everything to the communists, even if all they were hanging onto was barely enough food to keep their family from starving. Contrary to Greenberg’s confident assertion, the Red Army never occupied Yugoslavia or Albania during or after World War 2, nor did it liberate “one-third of Germany.” Greenberg is counting all of what became East Germany, the zone awarded to the Soviet Union that included sizeable chunks liberated by the Americans, including Leipzig. And it’s not just Russian. Greenberg thinks “duchy” rhymes with “hootchie-cootchie” and that Oxfordshire rhymes with “choir.” The Slovene city of Lipica is “Lipitsa,” not “Lipika.” Prague’s Hradcany Castle is (in English) RAD-cha-nee, not “harad-KAHnee.” Which brings us to Greenberg’s worst nails-on-chalkboard sin in this course. Unaware that ALL Czech names are ALWAYS pronounced on the first syllable, and apparenly mistaking the diacritic for an accent mark, for an entire scream-inducing lecture he pronounces Janacek “ya-NAW-chek.” Professor! Please. My ears. But here’s the thing. The content is so rich, so brilliant, so well-chosen, so magnificently presented, that I can’t take stars off even for that. Get the course.
Date published: 2020-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoughtful Music Survey Course This is the Music History class I've been waiting for! I'm a long time amateur musician, but lack a background in theory, so I struggle through (although thoroughly enjoy!) the other courses. This course is the survey I've been looking for that grounds movements and overarching developments across political, social, and music history. And, as always, Dr. Greenberg is immensely entertaining!
Date published: 2020-12-04
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Uncover the fascinating and surprising connections between famous music and historical events, led by celebrated composer and music historian Professor Robert Greenberg. In Music as a Mirror of History, music lovers and history enthusiasts alike will be enthralled by this exploration of how momentous compositions have responded to-and inspired-pivotal points in the history of the world.


Robert Greenberg
Robert Greenberg

For thousands of years cultures have celebrated themselves through their music. Let us always be willing and able to join that celebration by listening as carefully as we can to what, through music, we have to say to one another.


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, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres. Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

By This Professor

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works
Music as a Mirror of History
Great Music of the 20th Century
Symphonies of Beethoven
The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition
Music as a Mirror of History


Music and History, Madrigals and Maps

01: 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 Janacek and Frederic Chopin responded to political events in key works. Take account of how the magnified emotions stirred by human conflicts feed artistic ...

47 min
Handel: Water Music (1714)

02: 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 r...

44 min
Mozart: The Abduction from the Harem (1782)

03: 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 Aus...

44 min
Haydn: Mass in the Time of War (1797)

04: 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 again...

44 min
Beethoven: The Farewell Sonata (1810)

05: 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 absen...

45 min
Beethoven: Wellington's Victory (1813)

06: 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 ...

46 min
Berlioz/de L'Isle:

07: 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 settin...

44 min
Chopin: Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12 (1831)

08: Chopin: Etude 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 Frederic 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" ...

46 min
Glinka: A Life for the Tsar (1836)

09: 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...

43 min
Strauss Sr.: Radetzky March (1848)

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 M...

45 min
Brahms: Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25 (1861)

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 musi...

42 min
Gottschalk: The Union (1862)

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 ...

47 min
Verdi: Nabucco (1842)

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 parti...

45 min
Wagner: The Ring (1876)

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 Wa...

46 min
Dvorak: From the New World Symphony (1893)

15: Dvorak: 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 Dvorak, and uncover the impact on American music of Dvorak's residency in the U.S., which produced his symphony entitled ...

47 min
Balakirev: Symphony No. 1 (1898)

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 ar...

48 min
Janacek: Piano Sonata I.X.1905 (1906)

17: Janacek: Piano Sonata I.X.1905 (1906)

The life and music of composer Leos Janacek 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 Janacek was a passionate advocate. Learn how the events of a political demonstration in 1905 inspired ...

47 min
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (1907)

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 ...

45 min
Holst: Ode to Death (1919)

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...

48 min
Berg: Wozzeck (1922)

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 h...

45 min
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (1962)

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 th...

47 min
Copland: Symphony No. 3 (1946)

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 obsc...

50 min
Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 (1976)

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 Górecki's life in wartime and in the repressive era that followed, and hear the sublimely beautiful "Symphony of Sorrowful Song...

49 min
Crumb: Black Angels (1970)

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 Ange...

51 min