Great Masters: Shostakovich-His Life and Music

Course No. 760
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 760
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Course Overview

Discover the extraordinary life, times, and art of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), great musical master and flawed but faithful witness to the survival of the human spirit under totalitarianism. He is without a doubt one of the absolutely central composers of the 20th century. His symphonies and string quartets are mainstays of the repertoire.

But Shostakovich is also a figure whose story raises challenging and exciting issues that go far beyond music: They touch on questions of conscience, of the moral role of the artist, of the plight of humanity in the face of total war and mass oppression, and of the inner life of history's bloodiest century.

A Soviet Impression

The Bolshevik Revolution took place when Dmitri Shostakovich was a boy of 11. His life and career from then on coincided with, and in a sense mirrored, the rise, tortured life, and eventual failure of the Soviet communist regime.

The premise of Professor Robert Greenberg's approach to this giant among 20th-century composers is that nothing he said publicly about his music ("for official Soviet consumption") should be taken at face value. He lived the great bulk of his career under Stalin, and he knew what that meant. He had seen friends taken away in the purges, never to return.

The crucial aspect on Shostakovich's career, argues Professor Greenberg, is defined by his posthumous book of reminiscences, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, a volume based on a series of extraordinarily frank private interviews that the composer gave to a young Soviet musicologist named Solomon Volkov.

In them, Shostakovich makes clear that he was no hero or martyr—as a friend said, "He did not want to rot in a prison or a graveyard"—but also shows that at the same time he was never willing to become a docile instrument of the Soviet regime.

Shostakovich speaks through his music, which bears messages from a buried life of his experiences during the terror of Stalin, the Nazi destruction of his country, postwar reconstruction, and the arms race. To decode these messages, you study a mix of biographical information intertwined with numerous musical excerpts from the composer's work.

You learn to hear how, in work after work, often composed under circumstances of crushing difficulty and anxiety, Shostakovich used a brilliant arsenal of ironic juxtapositions (a piping piccolo theme in a symphony supposed to glorify Stalin, for instance), musical quotes from such un-Soviet sources as American jazz or Jewish klezmer tunes, and other techniques to assert the integrity of his art in the face of totalitarian oppression, and to pay, as he said, "homage to the dead."

Professor Greenberg provides careful, gripping accounts of the political circumstances amid which Shostakovich composed his masterworks—meaning above all his 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets.

Shostakovich: Portrait of the Artist as Witness and Survivor

The flood of declassified material that has come pouring out of old Soviet archives since 1991 is a rich resource for these lectures. The tale this material tells is harrowing, but it is one we cannot look away from, notes Professor Greenberg.

Certainly, he says, we will never understand Shostakovich unless and until we come to grips with it, for only by knowing this awful history can we hope to grasp anything even approaching "the full and true meaning of the art that this frail, fearful, and outwardly timid but inwardly resolute genius has bequeathed to us, his fortunate posterity.

"Unlike the other musical biographies that I have created for The Teaching Company, this one—Shostakovich's—will have more than its share of controversy," says Professor Greenberg.
"There are two reasons for this. The first is simple enough: Having died fairly recently, and having composed major works almost to the end of his life, Shostakovich is a very 'fresh' figure. We are still coming to terms with his enormously influential compositional output—particularly his symphonies and string quartets, works which are so central to the contemporary repertoire.

"The second reason for the controversy is far more complicated: Shostakovich was a Soviet artist, and the Soviet State used his music as a tool. Art and politics make strange and problematic bedfellows. But they are a coupling that we cannot possibly avoid if we are to talk about Dmitri Shostakovich and his music. These lectures, then, tell the story of a man and his art, a place and a political system, all of them truly indivisible from one another."

Shostakovich knew Stalin personally and was singled out for criticism by him. Shostakovich was not just the single most important composer of string quartets and symphonies from the 1920s to the 1970s, he was a witness to the rise and failure of Soviet Communism, perhaps the defining event of the 20th century.

Biography Presented in Detail

Among what you learn about Shostakovich's life is:

  • After the condemnation of his music by Stalin in 1936, Shostakovich never left home without soap and a toothbrush, so convinced was he that he would be arrested.
  • He included a special set of notes representing a "musical signature" in many of his works.
  • The Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Minor of 1940 comments on the official Soviet preference for upbeat, "accessible" music by sandwiching a movement that quotes the bumptious theme associated with Russian circus clowns between movements that brilliantly pay tribute to J. S. Bach.
  • Shostakovich loved Jewish music—especially klezmer because of the way it combines joy with despair. Defying Soviet anti-Semitism, he "quoted" Jewish music in works such as 1944's Piano Trio in E Minor, wrote a song cycle called From Jewish Poetry (1948), and famously memorialized the plight of persecuted and murdered Jews in his Babi Yar Symphony of 1962.
  • The brutal and vicious second-movement scherzo of the magnificent 10th Symphony was written that way because it was intended as a musical portrait of the recently deceased Josef Stalin.

An Artist for Humanity

When Dmitri Shostakovich died in Moscow on December 9, 1975, he was "hailed as a 'hero of the people,' " says Professor Greenberg. "But we know him as a survivor, a witness, and an artist who spoke for all of humanity."

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 20 (1929)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, op. 29, (1930-32)
Symphony no. 5 in D Minor, op. 47 (1937)
String Quartet no. 1 in C Major, op. 49 (1938)
Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Minor, op. 57 (1940)
Symphony no. 7 in C Major, op. 60, Leningrad (1941)
Piano Trio in E Minor, op. 67 (1944)
String Quartet no. 3 in F Major, op. 73 (1946)
String Quartet no. 5 in B-flat Major, op. 92 (1952)
Symphony no. 10 in E Minor, op. 93 (1953)
String Quartet no. 7 in F-sharp Minor, op. 108 (1960)
Symphony no. 13 in B-flat Minor, op. 113, Babi Yar (1962)
String Quartet no. 10 in A-flat Major, op. 118 (1964)
String Quartet no. 15 in E-flat Minor, op. 144 (1974)

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8 lectures
 |  Average 47 minutes each
  • 1
    Let the Controversy Begin
    No composer's music seems to mirror world events and the experiences of his own life more fully than does that of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. Publicly, the composer explained his work as a tribute to Soviet ideology and people. But privately he detailed the real impetus behind his music: his experiences during the Terror of Stalin, the Nazi destruction of his country, postwar reconstruction, and the arms race. x
  • 2
    The Kid's Got Talent!
    Shostakovich attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory and at age 19 wrote the Symphony no. 1. When it was premiered in 1926, he was vaulted into instant fame. In 1927, he wrote a patriotic symphony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Revolution, the Symphony no. 2 in B Major, a more modern and dissonant work than the First. x
  • 3
    Lady Macbeth
    In 1927 to 1930 Shostakovich wrote orchestral music, a ballet score, and his first opera, The Nose, which was well received by the public but slammed by critics for lacking Soviet ideology. When Stalin saw his next major work, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he pronounced it "degenerate" and issued threats against those who would perform it. Shostakovich was suddenly sanctioned and threatened as a purveyor of "bourgeois musical formalism." x
  • 4
    Shostakovich was told that he had to reject his "formalist mistakes" of the past and submit any future work to the Committee for Artistic Affairs for screening. Under that pressure he composed his Fifth Symphony. The first-night audience for the Fifth clearly understood the work as a statement about the Great Terror, but Shostakovich was nevertheless officially declared "rehabilitated." His next project was a string quartet, and although new to Shostakovich, the String Quartet no. 1 in C Major shows that he had already mastered the genre. x
  • 5
    The Great Patriotic War
    Shostakovich became a hero of the people as he worked in the Conservatory fire-fighting brigade, broadcast messages of assurance on the radio, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. When Symphony no. 7 was finished, the work and the composer became instant symbols of heroism and defiance. Other major works of this period include the Trio in E Minor and Symphony no. 9, a piece that was supposed to glorify Stalin but instead evokes an image of the mouse that roared. x
  • 6
    Repression and Depression
    After the war, Shostakovich composed his first string quartet masterwork, the String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, but again was in the line of Party fire. He faced charges of formalism and was expected to publicly apologize to Stalin and the Soviet people. He was also fired from his teaching jobs and forced to acknowledge speeches denouncing the United States. He withheld from performance his String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, a piece that uses a number of Jewish musical elements. When Stalin died under questionable circumstances, Shostakovich's reaction was relieved but guarded. x
  • 7
    The Thaw
    After Stalin's death, Shostakovich began to release all the works that he had hidden since 1948. In the 1950s his wife died suddenly, and his mother died less than a year later. He was also asked to take a position that would require him to join the Communist Party. He did, but only to ensure his and his family's safety. He continued to compose radically modern music dedicated to the victims of Fascism, and the Symphony No. 13, which is based on a poem decrying Russian anti-Semitism. x
  • 8
    Illness and Inspiration
    The Brezhnev regime, although repressive, essentially left Shostakovich alone, which enabled him to produce extraordinary music. As his health deteriorated he became increasingly an invalid. His last symphony, the Fifteenth, is filled with mysterious musical quotes. It sums up the composer's life, and offers a peek into his bitter, angry, darkly humorous, and powerfully expressive mind. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
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,...
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Great Masters: Shostakovich-His Life and Music is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 60.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from SPOILER ALERT! The USSR was bad. Shostakovich’s tragic life and splendid music are well worth a few hours of your time, but I don’t recommend that you spend those hours here. Musical insights are few and far between, and always take a back seat to Greenberg’s endless rants against the Soviet Union. He uses most of the first lecture, for example, to make the case that Shostakovich, in fear for his life, often dissembled in his public statements. With whom does Greenberg think he’s arguing? We know that, people at the time knew that, and in all likelihood Stalin knew it too. Greenberg’s shock-radio delivery is silly at best and distracting at worst. Even when reading direct quotations from his sources, he adds pungent emotional color that may or may represent the feelings of the speaker. The power of quotes lies in the fact that they speak for themselves. As a final carp, couldn’t Greenberg have taken an hour to learn the common anglicized pronunciations of Russian names? He insists on pompously referring to this subject as “Dmitri Dmitrievich,” but not only adds an entire syllable to the patronymic, he emphatically stresses the very syllable that shouldn’t be there. To hear “Dim ee tree AY vich” repeated hundreds of times is like nails on a chalkboard for Russian speakers. Yes, get to know Shostakovich. Buy a few CDs and read the liner notes.
Date published: 2018-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fabulous and insightful overview of Shostakovich As a newcomer to the Teaching Company's output, I've been impressed with the quality of the courses I've chosen in a range of disciplines. However nothing matches the well structured, thoroughly prepared, exuberant, witty, insightful and inspirational presentation provided by Professor Robert Greenberg in his biographies of the Great Masters, and in particular his treatment of Shostakovich. As a long time fan of the Russian composers - particularly Shostakovich - I think that Prof Greenberg understands and appreciates his work much more deeply than many western music critics, and he interposes enough of the music to illustrate his analysis whilst maintaining tight control over the narrative. I'd love to know which recordings Prof Greenberg considers to be the definitive ones - any chance of asking him?
Date published: 2017-07-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Great Masters: Shostakovich I listend to the complete lectures and must say I'm pretty disappointed. I happen to be a connaiseur on Shostakovich. Not only do I own all his works, I enjoyed many of them performed by the greatest Directors alive, I also have read DSCH magazine as well as at least 5 biografies. your course is quite docile to what Salomon Volkov states. the great writers on DDS doubt, scientificaly, the truth of what Volkov has written. especially Fay and Wilson eat Volkov alive, as does Prof. Taruskin. I'm afraid I've heard nothing new, practically. Well, the way of presentation was new to me. sometimes I really thought I was listening to a radio football commentary. I will buy no items Prof. Greenberg anymore. And that's a shame, because I love Mahler and Stravinsky !!
Date published: 2017-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fine course on many levels As Soviet history, as a character study of a great artist under extreme political duress and as music history - this course delivers on all of these subjects. It is a first-rate course. I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2016-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An inside view of Russian history I have listened to this course over and over and passed it onto my piano students. It gives a deeply personal view of the mental and psychological aspects of living as a creative genius in a repressive and life threatening environment. Fascinating for musicians and non-musicians alike.
Date published: 2016-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Artist's Integrity under Totalitarianism Dmitri Shostakovich's music is extremely complex, varied and sometimes still difficult to understand. In high school, I fell in love with the 4th Movement of his Symphony No. 5, which we played as a symphonic band arrangement. To my younger self, it was just a butt-kickin' finish full of percussion and pyrotechnics -- the heavy metal of classical music. Then, through this course, I learned the back-story from Professor Greenberg. And what had seemed like a bombastic, propaganda soundtrack celebrating Soviet "achievement" was revealed as the sarcastic, biting, bitter denunciation of Stalinism that it really was. My younger self had been hoodwinked, just like the oafish party apparatchiks who saw it as Shostakovich's apology for his previous bourgeoise "formalism." Lecture #4 covers this story in great, stirring detail. The story Prof. Greenberg relates of the symphony's premiere in Leningrad will thrill you, perhaps to tears. The Russian audience understood the coded message, but the Soviet regime did not. It speaks to Shostakovich's personal bravery that he knew there was a real chance he could have been purged by the regime for this work. He managed to sell the bureaucrats the lie that this symphony was a "triumphal story" while somehow getting the real message through to the people. It takes a lot of guts to retain artistic integrity under a totalitarian regime. I'm not aware of any other composer who has managed to pull that off under similar conditions. This will forever make Shostakovich a hero to me. And I have Prof. Greenberg to thank for exposing me to this great truth.
Date published: 2016-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Got Russia right As someone with a PhD in Russian literature and history, I can attest to the superb research done by Robert Greenberg. He understands Russian culture and that adds an important element to his learned and entertaining elucidation of Shostakovich's music.
Date published: 2016-07-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from If interested in Shostakovich, look elsewhere I have loved the music of Shostakovich since I was a child and so was excited and eager to get this course. It was a huge disappointment in almost every respect. From reading other reviews, I know some people find Prof. Greenberg's lecture style appealing, which is great. I found it more irritating, distracting, and self-aggrandizing than any other lecturer I have ever seen. To his credit, he is very enthusiastic. But he seems much more enthusiastic about how wonderful he is than about the topic. Prof. Greenberg gesticulates wildly most of the time; he yells; he repeatedly draws attention to himself by being "cute" in ways some other reviewers have cited. What he does not do is tell us much about Shostakovich's music. Neither does he tell us much about Shostakovich except what is in his book Testimony, from which Prof. Greenberg quotes at great length. When he deigns to mention the music, what we typically get is a very short excerpt with no useful information to help us understand the piece or how it fits into Shostakovich's development or, in fact, anything else interesting or useful. He spends an enormous amount of time chastizing the regime under which Shostakovich lived: a good historical context would be essential to understanding Shostakovich, but most of this is a rant about how horrible Stalin and co. were. I already knew that, and if I had wanted to learn that I would have bought a history set. Even for someone can overlook or finds appealing Prof. Greenberg's lecture style (and responses to lecture style are subjective and personal), the deeply flawed and inadequate content alone is enough to make this set a huge disappointment, one I cannot honestly recommend to anyone.
Date published: 2015-03-04
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