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The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

Experience the profound joy of landmark creations by Haydn, Beethoven, and others in this survey of orchestral works considered the greatest in Western history.
The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 95.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable and informative We learned a lot about some old favorites and discovered some good new ones. As always, Robert Greenberg's lectures are entertaining and full of insights about the music and its biographical and historical setting.
Date published: 2023-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, Especially Lecture 12 I am halfway done with the course and am enjoying every lecture in it. In particular, lecture 12 - Mendelssohn and his Italian Symphony - was incredible. As you'll discover, Prof Greenberg will give you a thorough background story behind the composer and his masterpiece. In lecture 12, he covers young prodigies and "the Jewish problem" in the background portion. I was enthralled by both; you won't get hear stuff like that in most university classrooms or lecture halls. To summarize my feelings, this course will teach you not only about the orchestral works but the composers' lives and times as well.
Date published: 2023-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderfully instructive. Professor Greenberg knows his stuff, and his presentations are superb. He is a terrific storyteller which makes his lectures anything but pedantic. Lots of fun and memorable vignettes. With him, stuffy goes to the dustbin. Everything is alive. But don’t mistake his enthusiastic style for superficiality. It is anything but. His lectures are chock full of relevant technical information, but in his hands it is also fun. Yes, he has it all, a remarkable amalgam of extraordinary style and substance, just like his musical subjects. superficiality. His lectures are loaded with technical material, but in his hands, it is
Date published: 2022-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Master Teaching about Masters! Dr. Robert Greenberg integrates diverse music knowledge, professional wisdom, humor and passion into his courses! I cannot begin to measure the immense pleasure I have had being a part of his courses (this is my 2nd Dr. Greenberg course and I am now over 500 Great Courses lecture sets.). The Professor is one of the VERY BEST lecturers I have encountered over my decades of enjoying the Great Courses! I am now ready to start a new Dr. Greenberg course and continue to enhance my life and knowledge.
Date published: 2021-11-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinary course! The "30 Greatest Orchestral Works" is an extraordinay offering. The credit goes to the outstanding narrator, Professor Robert Greenberg. His knowledge of the subject is thorough, but more than that, his animated, enthusiastic and sometimes humorous presentation is right up there with the best I have ever heard. Whether you are knowledgeable of classical music or not, you will thoroughly enjoy this course!
Date published: 2021-09-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating This reviewer’s knowledge of musicology and music history is about as close to zero as one can get, so each lecture was a revelation. The biographical material and information on each work’s social and political context are presented with enthusiasm and colored with Professor Greenberg’s consistently humorous assertions. There is nothing dry or bland in any of the lectures. His rants on Beethoven as the gorilla in the living room of composers (Lecture 11, Schubert – Symphony No. 9) and on Mendelssohn as a child prodigy (Lecture 12, Mendelssohn – “Italian” Symphony) are marvelous; my wife and I watched them repeatedly. Speaking of my wife, when we got to Lecture 27 on Camille Saint-Saëns, she spontaneously remarked that a movement from his Danse Macabre (1872) was in the theater scene of the 1993 film Tombstone and a theme from his Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 79 (1886), was used in the 1995 film Babe. I never would have picked up on that. Of course, Greenberg had to leave out a great number of deserving composers in this survey. I am thinking of Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Richard Charles Rodgers (1902-1979). But, what do I know? HWF, Mesa, AZ.
Date published: 2021-01-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not the 30 Greatest Orchestral Works The title is a misnomer. These are not the 30 "greatest" orchestral works. Some omissions: Beethoven's 5th and 7th Symphonies and Triple Concerto. That these are some of the greatest orchestral works is incontestable. There is not a single piano concerto after Beethoven's 4th. Greenberg explicitly says that the 5th Symphony is not included because it is in his "Understand Great Music" course. Presumably the Triple Concerto, and the later Piano Concerti, are not included because of his "Concerto" course. Some of his "Greatest" are positively questionable. Mahler's 5th Symphony is just noise. And Shostakovich 5th and 10th? Greenberg himself doesn't even mention Shostakovich in his "Great Music" course, and with good reason. Copland's Appalachian Spring is one of the 30 best? Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra is interesting for about the first 30 seconds, as Greenberg himself admits, though his discussion of the influence of Nietzsche's philosophy on Strauss is informative, as is Diaghilev's stage-managing of the first performance of the Rite of Spring. Greenberg should have dropped the Greatest Orchestral Works hyperbole and thought of a more modest and accurate title.
Date published: 2020-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A TREASURE ! 45 minutes per lecture! Greenberg’s 2011 course is certainly a sweet deal for the huge amount of information. That Greenberg cleverly “pictures music with words”, makes it the kind of course where you afterwards reflect on what you’d heard. METHOD: Greenberg, depending on the artist, spends about 1/3 of each lecture describing the historical circumstances and life of the artist. This was an amazing help. As the historical backgrounds advance, the changes in musical approach seem inevitable. The historical tragedy of so many of these hard-working artists actually increased my respect for their music. For example (L2), the great Vivaldi’s musical work at the Pieta Venetian orphanage caused the rich to send their own children there. Yet, being irresponsible with money, Vivaldi had to leave and died soon after arriving in Germany interned in a grave that is now lost. TERMINOLOGY: Initially, having one finger on the glossary is important, but if you are careful, things start to repeat. You soon realize you can follow along even without formal musical training. L6 was where I began to feel comfortable with Greenberg’s musical analysis. SURPRISES: Your surprises will differ from mine, but the effect is amazing. L18 spoke to me because I was recently involved in understanding the cataclysm of the Vienna-based Austrian Empire. Suddenly, Greenberg’s “picturing music with words” helped make Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” a “musical movie" of the Czech struggle against the empire. I was able to emotionally relate to peoples I previously barely knew existed through Smetana’s music. NEW JOYS: L2-17 are the classics for which Greenberg adds an interesting depth. In L24 Greenberg describes Movement 1 of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #2 as “a single achingly beautiful phrase. I have a giant "YES” on the page. L25’s explanation of Debussy's La Mer added more dimension to a great work. L 27 on Saint Saens was very well done. In L28, Greenberg’s “picturing music with words” refreshed any fatigue from Holst’s frequently heard "The Planets". WEEDING OUT: Three lectures were by well-known artists whose music has never been my favorite. That their lives sourced the darkness of their music gave me full permission to pitch their music from my library without regret. PROGRAM CHANGE: The Guidebook talks about music by Ives in L27. But the lecture is on Saint Saens. I do not know what caused the change, but simply viewed it as a free lecture. HISTORY REPEATS: (L30 & 31) Greenberg’s rejection of Stalin's vile brand of socialism & Shostakovich’s agonized gamesmanship against it is very apropos today. As American cities, businesses, police, and diners suffer through their own “nights of broken glass” (“Kristallnacht” under Nazism and “peaceful protests" under Marxism), Shostakovich’s intelligent befuddlement of soviet apparatchiks creates a marvelous backdrop to deeply understand his music. Previously Shostakovich’s music mystified me, now I am a fan. “THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY", L32: Bizet, another tragic brilliance, was the first and (for myself) the best of the 5 who “got away”.
Date published: 2020-09-09
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In The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, join Great Courses favorite Professor Robert Greenberg as he guides you through 30 works that, in his expert opinion, can be considered among the greatest orchestral works in the history of Western concert music. Rich with detailed musical excerpts, these 32 lectures will open your ears to the profound joy and meaning of landmark creations by Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and many others.


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.

You can find more music content from Robert Greenberg on Patreon:

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
The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works


Game Plan and Preliminaries

01: Game Plan and Preliminaries

What defines a great orchestral work? Is it a piece's enduring expressive impact? Its compositional achievements? Find answers in this lecture, which tracks the evolution of the orchestra from its beginnings in accompanying operas to its flowering as a free-standing artistic medium. Then define the stylistic eras you'll encounter in this course, survey the seven predominant musical forms used in o...

48 min
Vivaldi-The Four Seasons

02: Vivaldi-The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi ranks as one of the great geniuses of concerto writing, and The Four Seasons is one of his most enduring masterpieces. Start by exploring Vivaldi's life and musical innovations in Baroque-era Venice. Then, delve into the four separate concertos of The Four Seasons, depicting humanity's relationship to nature. Using extensive musical examples, study Vivaldi's dynamic use of the solo...

47 min
Bach-Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

03: Bach-Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Follow Bach's career as he navigates the challenges of musical life in Baroque Germany. Also learn about the writing, loss, and rediscovery of the six beloved Brandenburg Concerti. In the Brandenburg No. 2's opening movement, discover Bach's brilliant interpretation of ritornello form, using four solo instruments in complex interactions with each other and the orchestra. Study key passages of the ...

45 min
Bach-Violin Concerto in E Major

04: Bach-Violin Concerto in E Major

In reviewing contemporary criticism of Bach's music, reflect on the ways in which the very originality and complexity we prize in Bach made him controversial in his own time. Highlighting the first two movements of the E Major violin concerto, see how Bach pushes the limits of both ritornello and passacaglia forms, transcending the episodic nature of these forms to create a compelling sense of dra...

47 min
Haydn-Symphony No. 104

05: Haydn-Symphony No. 104

Learn about Haydn's "on the job" musical education, his illustrious life in the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, and the creation of his celebrated "London" symphonies. In his great, final symphony, grasp important elements of Haydn's masterful symphonic writing. Study his creation of contrast and variety from a minimum of thematic strands, the lilting elegance and beauty of the inner mo...

48 min
Mozart-Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor

06: Mozart-Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor

Consider Mozart's relationship with the piano concerto, where his urge to self-expressive originality became a prime moving force. Explore the jarring opening theme, Mozart's use of the piano as an "operatic" character, and the ways in which he breaks the conventions of Classical style. Uncover the structure of the exquisite larghetto and of the final theme and variations, ending the work in a dra...

47 min
Mozart-Symphony in C Major,

07: Mozart-Symphony in C Major, "Jupiter"

Ponder Mozart's astounding facility for composing, as he routinely "wrote" masterworks entirely in his head. Continue with the circumstances surrounding the creation of his renowned final symphonies, amid great personal hardships. In the "Jupiter" symphony, take apart the thematic structure of the first and final movements, grasping Mozart's extraordinary inventiveness with sonata form, which unit...

43 min
Beethoven-Symphony No. 3

08: Beethoven-Symphony No. 3

Beethoven's Eroica symphony is deeply linked to critical events in his life. Reflect on his identification and later disillusionment with Napoleon, and his "heroic" self-reinvention following the overwhelming trauma of his hearing loss. Study the narrative arc of the Third Symphony and the brilliant musical means by which Beethoven expresses heroic struggle in the first movement, followed by death...

48 min
Beethoven-Piano Concerto No. 4

09: Beethoven-Piano Concerto No. 4

Consider Beethoven's explosive impact on Vienna as a pianist and the thought process that led to his innovations in this concerto. See how he creates a melodically splendorous opening movement by introducing the solo piano alone and altering the traditional "exposition" form. Across all three movements, witness how Beethoven uses the full symphonic resources of the orchestra while establishing the...

46 min
Beethoven-Symphony No. 9

10: Beethoven-Symphony No. 9

Learn about three critical moments where Beethoven "reinvented" himself in the face of terrible hardships, leading to his redefining the genre of the symphony in this historic, monumental work. Study the Ninth Symphony's musical architecture and dramatic narrative, from its depiction of the struggle between the heroic and the tragic to the final resolution of that struggle in a utopian vision of t...

49 min
Schubert-Symphony No. 9

11: Schubert-Symphony No. 9

In the brief life of Franz Schubert, contemplate the composer's astonishing creative output, the interconnections between Schubert and Beethoven, and the effect on Schubert's music of his tragic ordeal with syphilis. Savor the musical treasures of the "grand" Ninth Symphony, including the melodically original introduction, the vivacious scherzo, and the majestic finale, fusing Classical lyricism w...

44 min

12: Mendelssohn-"Italian" Symphony

Mendelssohn's record as a musical prodigy-surpassing even Mozart-played an ironic role in his later life. Regarding this symphony, track the "Mendelssohn problem," the controversial perception that his mature style showed an increasing conservatism. Through the four movements of this work, find the heart of Mendelssohn's extraordinary musical voice-its lyric beauty, formal lucidity, and ideal of c...

45 min
Schumann-Symphony No. 3

13: Schumann-Symphony No. 3

Trace the movement of Romanticism as it shaped Robert Schumann. Also learn about the "program" or storytelling symphony, and about Schumann's fascination with the landscape and history of Germany's Rhineland. In his Third Symphony, experience the rich textures of Schumann's impressions of the Rhine and the life surrounding it, highlighting the warm grandeur of the opening theme, the fourth movemen...

45 min
Brahms-Symphony No. 4

14: Brahms-Symphony No. 4

Investigate the difficult unfolding of Brahms's career, complicated by Schumann's early pronouncement that Brahms was the new messiah of German music. In the celebrated Fourth Symphony, track Brahms's genius in the opening movement, with its endless metamorphosis of a single musical idea, and in the final passacaglia, where he uses a restricting, Baroque-era form as the foundation of a resplendent...

48 min
Brahms-Violin Concerto

15: Brahms-Violin Concerto

First, trace important elements of Brahms's development, including his fanatical perfectionism, the damaging circumstances of his early musical life, and his bond with the violinist Joseph Joachim, who played a critical role in the creation of the Violin Concerto. Among the concerto's riches, hear Brahms's brilliant structuring of the opening movement, giving the violin the chance to gloriously e...

45 min
Tchaikovsky-Symphony No. 4

16: Tchaikovsky-Symphony No. 4

The musical content of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, mirroring events in his life, is directly explained in his letters. As background, reflect on his difficult youth, his disastrous marriage, and the pivotal support of his longtime benefactress. Through his letters, chart the symphony's narrative "story," from the struggle against relentless fate in the first movement, told through dramatically ...

48 min
Tchaikovsky-Violin Concerto

17: Tchaikovsky-Violin Concerto

Here, investigate key elements of Tchaikovsky's musical sensibility: his adherence to Western compositional principles, his Slavic temperament, and his dazzling melodic gifts. In the Violin Concerto's opening, hear his soaring use of the solo instrument and his unusual interpretation of sonata form, allowing him to bask in the central theme through creative restatement and variations. Then, enjoy ...

45 min
Bedrich Smetana-Ma Vlast

18: Bedrich Smetana-Ma Vlast

Written by the "father" of Czech music, the grand symphonic poem Ma Vlast evokes Bohemia's landscape, history, and people. Learn about Smetana's life in turbulent political times, and his role in the "musical nationalism" that sought an authentic Czech musical style. Focusing on four of the six movements, hear Smetana's extraordinary tonal "painting," his precise musical evocation of histor...

47 min
Dvorak-Symphony No. 8

19: Dvorak-Symphony No. 8

Another Czech icon, Dvorak melded the forms of Classicism with the expressive thrust and nationalist spirit of Romanticism. In the symphony's opening, study the tonal shifts between major and minor-a hallmark of Czech folk music-as well as the composer's evocative use of birdsong. Discover Dvorak's unique voice in the enigmatic expressive extremes of the funeral march, the singular b...

46 min
Dvorak-Concerto for 'Cello

20: Dvorak-Concerto for 'Cello

Learn about Dvorak's life in 1890s New York and the origins of this superlative work, inspired by the 'cello writing and symphonic textures of Victor Herbert's second 'cello concerto. Explore unforgettable passages and personal meanings in the Dvorak concerto, including the solemnity and lyric passion of the opening, the idyllic second theme, and the intimate significance to the comp...

47 min

21: Rimsky-Korsakov-Scheherazade

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov played a pivotal role in the development of Russian concert music in the 19th century. Learn about his unusual entry into Russian musical life, his vast influence as a teacher, and the literary base of Scheherazade. In this tour-de-force of program music, study the musical "voices" of the Persian princess Scheherazade, the despotic Sultan Shahryar, and the sonic unfolding o...

47 min
Richard Strauss-Thus Spoke Zarathustra

22: Richard Strauss-Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Strauss's majestic tone poem is based on the philosophical masterwork of Friedrich Nietzsche. Begin by tracing Strauss's musical education, his points of connection with Nietzsche, and the philosophical underpinnings of Nietzsche's work. In Strauss's musical rendering, grasp the structure of the famous "Nature theme" and follow Strauss's interpretation of eight "sermons" from Nietzsche's original,...

48 min
Mahler-Symphony No. 5

23: Mahler-Symphony No. 5

This groundbreaking work fuses the musical language of Romanticism with an entirely modern expressive content. Explore Mahler's cultural milieu (including the influence of Freud and the ethos of Expressionism) as he develops the symphony as a medium for philosophical/spiritual contemplations. Track the Fifth Symphony's unusual musical narrative, which depicts the rituals of death and the progressi...

48 min
Rachmaninoff-Symphony No. 2

24: Rachmaninoff-Symphony No. 2

Rachmaninoff's music is controversial, both for its independence from the modernism of his times and for its popularity in the face of criticism from scholars. In this symphony, investigate the opening melodic idea, as it ingeniously infuses successive themes throughout the work. Experience Rachmaninoff's richly beautiful melodic art and orchestration, and grasp his brilliant thematic "architectur...

46 min
Debussy-La Mer

25: Debussy-La Mer

Debussy's revolutionary music flowed from his fascination with timbres and colors of sound, as well as from the movement to create an authentically French music that followed the Franco-Prussian War. In La Mer (The Sea), enter the world of Debussy's dazzling musical language; his sensuous instrumental textures depicting the shimmering play of light and color, the surging motion and awesome natural...

45 min
Stravinsky-The Rite of Spring

26: Stravinsky-The Rite of Spring

Created for the legendary Ballets Russes, this trailblazing score was the single most influential musical work of its time. Learn about Stravinsky's development as a composer, his "discovery" by the theater impresario Diaghilev, and the genesis of the Rite. In the work's two parts, see how Stravinsky incarnates Bronze Age tribal rituals and the creative power of Spring, by studying his use of musi...

46 min
Saint-Saens-Symphony No. 3

27: Saint-Saens-Symphony No. 3

As a prodigy who began playing the piano at age two, Camille Saint-Saëns's musical life spanned the decades of the post-Beethoven era to the beginning of the jazz era. Learn why Saint-Saëns-one of the most popular composers of his time-is often misrepresented as an arch-conservative who never lived up to his potential, and examine how his Danse macabre achieves its intentionally devilish...

49 min
Holst-The Planets

28: Holst-The Planets

Holst's popular symphonic suite enchants through its exquisite orchestration, sheer tonal beauty, and expressive directness. Your investigation assesses the character of Holst the man, his music, and the astrological basis of this work's conception. In the suite's seven "mood pictures," identify each movement's core thematic material and the way each depicts the zodiacal character of the individua...

50 min
Copland-Appalachian Spring

29: Copland-Appalachian Spring

In approaching this extraordinary work, trace the development of American concert music and the economic, social, and political reasons it emerged only in the 20th century. Learn also about Copland's influences and his desire to create a distinctly American musical voice. In the concert version of this ballet score, study the elements of Copland's unique style-his widely spaced melodies, "Stravins...

46 min
Shostakovich-Symphony No. 5

30: Shostakovich-Symphony No. 5

The writing of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was inextricably linked to the horrific political repression in Russia under Stalin and the terror of the composer's condemnation by the Soviet authorities. Grasp his philosophical-artistic triumph in this symphony-its menacing representation of brutality in the opening, its impassioned third movement, and psychologically harrowing finale, communicating...

44 min
Shostakovich-Symphony No. 10

31: Shostakovich-Symphony No. 10

Track the murderous postwar purges by the Soviet government, Shostakovich's second political condemnation, and the writing of the Tenth Symphony in the wake of Stalin's death. In the symphony's metaphoric confrontation between the artist and the despot, experience Shostakovich's self-revelation in the first movement, his wrenching depiction of Stalin, and the poignant recurrence of his own musical...

46 min
The Ones That Got Away

32: The Ones That Got Away

Finally, reflect on the rich scope of the orchestral literature. In concentrated excerpts, taste the greatness of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler and of symphonies by Bizet, Prokofiev, William Walton, and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Conclude with Professor Greenberg's proposals for surmounting the survival challenges facing modern orchestras-the specific actions available to orchestral managements, conduc...

50 min