The 20th century was a breeding ground of musical exploration, innovation, and transformation unlike any other era in history. Breaking with the traditions of the past, early 20th-century composers upended the old order of concert music, igniting both passionate admiration and white-hot controversy with works such as Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, whose ethereal, otherworldly sonic textures initiated musical modernism; and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose jarring primitivism and the near-riot of its premiere are the stuff of musical legend.
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But these were only the tip of a monumental iceberg—the beginning of an explosion of new musical languages and syntaxes that would last for the entire century, ranging from the non-tonality of Arnold Schoenberg and the individualist vision of Charles Ives to the the stylistic synthesis of Béla Bartók, the ultraserialism of Milton Babbitt, and the remarkable eclecticism of Henry Cowell.
As always in music history, these artistic currents directly reflected changes in the world at large, as composers responded to the upheavals, dislocations, paradigm shifts, world wars, globalism, and other momentous happenings that the century brought—creating masterworks that rank among history’s greatest moments of musical expression.
And yet, parallel with these transformations came the perception—which echoes to this day—that the new music could be difficult, challenging to grasp, and at times simply unintelligible—all of which figured within tumultuous and unending debates about what music should or could be.
Now, speaking to these extraordinary and galvanizing events, Great Courses favorite Professor Robert Greenberg of San Francisco Performances returns with one of his most provocative, most compelling, and most rewarding courses ever. In Great Music of the 20th Century, Professor Greenberg unfurls a huge spectrum of new works and material that have not been covered in depth in previous courses. Ranging across the 20th century in its entirety, these 24 lectures present a musical cornucopia of astonishing dimensions—a major presentation and exploration of the incredible brilliance and diversity of musical art across a turbulent century.
Discover a Breathtaking Epoch in Western Music
Taking a chronological approach, the course explores the fascinating gamut of 20th-century musical “isms,” from impressionism and fauvism to serialism, stochasticism, ultraserialism, neo-classicism, neo-tonalism, and minimalism, as well as the inclusivity and synthesis within concert music that embraced Western historical styles, folk and popular music, jazz, rock, Asian, Latin American, and other influences in the service of heightened expression. Through the panoramic view of the course, you’ll discover the genius of composers such as Webern, Antheil, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Takamitsu, and many others.
From the very first lecture, Professor Greenberg tackles the bugbear of 20th-century concert music directly, showing with remarkable clarity what these composers were up to, how to understand their compositional processes and visions, and how to appreciate and enjoy the sublime music this century produced.
For those familiar with Professor Greenberg’s previous courses, these lectures present a new approach to the musical excerpts themselves, and one that is aligned with the way people access music in the 21st century. Instead of playing musical excerpts within the lectures, Professor Greenberg provides easily accessible online resources to complete performances of all the works discussed, allowing you to explore them in their entirety, either while listening to the lectures, separately, or both. This approach offers the benefits of easy access to full performances of the works, plus a full 45 minutes of Professor Greenberg’s celebrated teaching and commentary in each lecture.
Grasp the Passionate Ideals and Groundbreaking Methods of Musical Modernism
Early in the course, you’ll delve into the historical, sociological, and psychological factors that underlay early 20th-century composers’ abandonment of musical tradition. In clear, accessible terms, you’ll learn about the trailblazing compositional approaches of the century’s great composers, and what motivated them, in cases such as:
The Astounding Journey of Igor Stravinsky—Follow the trajectory of the 20th century’s most integrally influential composer, from his legendary “fauvist” scores for the Ballets Russes and his unexpected turn as a neoclassicist to his constant, lifelong experimentation and self-reinvention. Study Stravinsky’s rich range of masterpieces, including his iconic Pulcinella, his Symphony in Three Movements,and his career-capping Requiem Canticles.
Beyond Tonality: The Legacy of Arnold Schoenberg—Learn the dramatic story of Schoenberg’s “emancipation” from traditional musical tonality, and his magisterial non-tonal and serial or “12-tone” works. Take account of the searing controversy surrounding his compositions and methodology, and his imprint on a lineage of brilliant composers. Experience landmark works, such as his masterful Pierrot Lunaire, Variations for Orchestra, and Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.
America’s Kaleidoscopic Offering to New Music—Across the span of the course, learn how 20th-century U.S. composers broke new ground in numerous and ingenious ways. Witness how American musical minds introduced jazz and popular idioms into concert music, created alternate tonal systems and musical instruments, pioneered electronic music, incorporated non-Western musical languages, and gave birth to genres such as minimalism.
Ultraserialism and Its Backlash—Observe how a cadre of post-World War II composers sought to distance themselves from the mindset of fascism, ironically producing intellectualized music which audiences found difficult or impossible to listen to. Also note the counter-reaction that spurred other spirits to seek new expressive means, leading composers such as Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti to create “sound mass” music of stunning beauty.
Spanning the World: Globalism in Concert Music—Learn how concert music in the second half of the 20th century saw an unprecedented meeting of world cultures. Hear the inspired infusion of Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Native American musical forms in the music of composers such as Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell. Discover the fusion of Western and East Asian sensibilities in the works of Isang Yun (Korea) and Chinery Ung (Cambodia).
A Multiplicity of Riches: Musical Pluralism—Grasp how the challenge for late 20th-century composers became the question of how to make use of the vast array of available musical languages, not only from 1,000 years of Western history, but from every culture across the world. Hear the amazing synthesis of musical forms in the brilliant works of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Luciano Berio, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Thomas Adès.
In his characteristic style, Professor Greenberg brings to each lecture a far-reaching and thoroughly absorbing historical context—delving into the circumstances that surrounded the writing of many key works, and showing how 20th-century composers responded to historical, socio-cultural, and personal events in their music. You’ll witness how the music of Béla Bartók was shaped by Hungarian nationalism; how devastating wartime experiences changed the music of Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen; how Hindu aesthetics and Zen Buddhism influenced the “indeterminate” music of John Cage; and how a deeply personal event affected Arnold Schoenberg’s final break with Western tonality.
Experience the Genius and Dazzling Diversity of the Century’s Greatest Masterworks
Far more than simply a course of lectures, Great Music of the 20th Century comprises a huge and many-sided resource for discovering the endless riches of 20th-century concert music across the globe. The phenomenal range of genres and composers covered and the wealth of suggestions for specific works make this a reference that could easily inspire years of musical exploration and glorious listening. As just a tiny sampling, you’ll learn about majestic works such as:
Alban Berg’s great Piano Sonata Op. 1 of 1909;
Carlos Chávez’s invocation of native Mexican music in his Sinfonía India (1936);
Elliott Carter’s polyphonic String Quartet No.2 (1959);
George Crumb’s deeply poetic Ancient Voices of Children (1970);
Luigi Nono’s grand-scale Prometeo (1984), a haunting meditation on the myth of Prometheus; and
Jennifer Higdon’s luminous, expansive Blue Cathedral (1999).
As always, Professor Greenberg speaks with a composer’s intimate understanding of the act of musical creation, and with profound insight into his subjects’ thinking and creative processes. And, after 28 courses and over 600 individual lectures for The Great Courses, Professor Greenberg talks about his own music for the first time—ending the course with a memorable, firsthand account of one celebrated composer’s journey through this remarkable era.
Great Music of the 20th Century opens the door to an extraordinary spectrum of contemporary masterpieces that await discovery and deep listening. Within these unique and riveting lectures, Professor Greenberg offers you the keys to understanding and deep enjoyment of a revolutionary, visionary, and magnificent era in music. In Great Music of the 20th Century, you’ll experience the living, evolving, and superlative musical art that so vividly and unforgettably speaks to the life of our times.