Music as a Mirror of History

The Kenwood Retirement Community

Join us in the Den 2 Monday’s a month from 1:30p-2:30p with discussion following.

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.