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The Great Courses – The Symphony


Published on: December 10, 2020
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Course Content


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 narrativ


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