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 69.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beyond Wonderful It would be hard to do justice to this class. The content is fascinating and Professor Greenberg is beyond wonderful. We literally rearranged our schedule to view all 8 lectures almost straight through. This class really grabs you! I had recently read the book, "City of Thieves," which describes the siege of Leningrad and includes the account of a Shostakovich symphony performance under the most dreadful imaginable circumstances. That book made me want to learn more about music that has that kind of power to inspire. If you've read that book, this course would be a nice complement. If you haven't, it doesn't matter. Buy this course.
Date published: 2010-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History and Music This was a great overview of Shostakovich's music, life, and 20th Century Russian history. Professor Greenberg continues his passionate discourses on the life and times of great conductors bringing you into the struggles and wonder of composing in a tightly controlled society. You will understand the music and appreciate more our freedom to listen to what ever we want.
Date published: 2010-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terror and Triumph Dimitri Shostakovich lived through an extended period of state terror that devoured millions of his countrymen. He survived by saying and doing what he was told, and when he protested elliptically through his music, he was repeatedly punished. But ultimately he produce a prodigious number of powerful compositions in direct response to and defiance of the nightmare that engulfed his country. Prof. Greenberg tells this story with a perfect blend of biographical anecdotes, historical background, consideration of the appropriate moral response to terror, and of course extensive knowledge of and selections from the composer's music. I gained more knowledge of Shostakovich's symphonies and was introduced to his magificent string quartets and other chamber works. This was perhaps the best of the many course by Prof. Greenberg that I have heard.
Date published: 2009-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An amazing excursion to another place and time I thought that the only Shostakovich music I liked was Piano Concert in F. My recent visit to Moscow , the Volga River and St. Petersburg inspired me to study Russian history and literature. When I returned, I attended a performance of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in which Shotakovich (which included my favorite) was played. Afterward, my decision to buy this lecture series was born. I LOVED IT. I loved everything about it. Professor Greenberg's ability to combine Russian history with the motivations, inspirations and gloom that guided this music was better than any of the Russian history books or literature I studied. I praise him for his remarkable, enthusiastic, in depth teaching! I am thrilled to have gained an understanding of the moods and circumstances behind the music. Thank you SO MUCH. I look forward to listening to it all over again and to acquiring another Great Master series.
Date published: 2009-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Compelling story of Shostakovich's life Listening to Shostakovich's life is not only compelling in its own right, but also gives a fascinating glimpse of what it was like to live in Stalinist Russia--having your friends mysteriously disappear, living in fear of the knock on the door in the night, deciding how much you will toe the line to political coercion, being required to subject your creative work to the judgement of boorish government thugs, . . . . In this lecture series, you will learn a lot of history, as well as learning to appreciate the music of a quirky, interesting composer.
Date published: 2009-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating This was a superb course: well-structured, with just the right mix of history and music. Prof. Greenberg has produced yet another hit.
Date published: 2009-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Survivor of Stalinism I wish I could give this - the last of Prof. Greenberg's composer biographies - 7 stars. He gives us a thrilling account of Shostakovich's life in Soviet Russia, the horrors of life under Stalinism and his struggle to survive. Shostakovich was very lucky not to be purged on more than one occasion. He was obliged to grovel to Stalin and lived in fear for most of his life. Yet, somehow, incredibly, he produced the greatest symphonic music of the C20 after Mahler and the best string quartets since Beethoven. An amazing life and extraordinary oeuvre. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2009-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I have really enjoyed this excellent course. One small thing I would like to notice: being myself of Russian origin, I have noticed that Robert Greenberg sometimes makes mistakes placing correct accent on Russian given or family names. I wish I could let him know about this.
Date published: 2009-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and Entertaining I enjoy Shostakovich's music but have long known that I didn't know enough about him or how and why his works are tied to Soviet history. I puchased this course on sale and thoroughly enjoyed it - during one 4 hour car trip I listened to several lectures back to back, and on the trip home re-played one or two that I wanted to hear and learn from again. Professor Greenberg is knowledgeable, highly entertaining and makes every bit of the material compelling. I would highly recommend this to anyone who wishes to understand and appreciate better Shostakovich's works.
Date published: 2009-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Music, Great History Yet another fabulous course in Professor Greenberg's Great Masters composer biography series. Once again, TTC's 5-star music historian puts a great composer's life into its historic context. The professor explains clearly how Shostakovitch's body of work was affected by his terrifying times, and how the composer managed, for the most part, to trancend his political environment. Like no other course in TTC's catalogue, this compact set of lectures illustrates the terrors of the Soviet regime. This course is recommended to everyone interested in music, but especially to persons too young to have lived during the Soviet era, or perhaps those who find the truth of Stalin's rule simply too nightmarish to be believed. Believe it. For a chilling lesson in "political correctness" run amok, don't miss this course. I enjoyed it on audio CD.
Date published: 2009-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Discussion of a 20th Century Master Great Masters: Shostakovich - His Life and Music Taught by Robert Greenberg 8 lectures, 45 minutes/lecture Dr. Greenberg is one of the most prolific and popular speakers in the Teaching Company Collection. He is both a renowned scholar of music history and a composer in his own right, having had his own music recorded and performed worldwide. His many music courses with TTC include "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music", "The Symphony", "The Concerto" among many many others. This course titled "Shostakovich—His Life and Music" is one of ten courses highlighting the life and music of major classical composers from Hayden to Shostakovich. The courses in this series are interesting in that they emphasize the importance of the composers lives and the historical context on the music which they created. This is perhaps most appropriate to the discussion of Dmitri Shostakovich who lived from 1906–1975, being born prior to the Russian Revolution, living through the regimes of Lenin, Stalin and those that followed. Arguably one of the single most significant and influential composers of the 20th century, his life spanned the two World Wars and the deepest era of Soviet mass oppression. As a result, his life is full of enigmas and controversy resulting from the fact that his public and private comments were often inconsistent. The study of Shostakovich is made all the more interesting as he was both the product of the times in which he lived, and a testimony to the resilience of the creative spirit. Dr. Greenberg refers often to Solomon Volkov's book "Testimony : The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich". In the book, numerous examples are given of fellow artists fearing not only for their careers but for their very safety .Dr. Greenberg states "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." Dr. Greenberg has selected excellent examples from the catalog of the music of Shostakovich. His major symphonic works are supplemented with his lesser heard, but no less significant chamber works like the Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Minor, op. 57 and the String Quartets no. 10 in A-flat Major, op. 118 and no. 15 in E-flat Minor, op. 144. Dr. Greenberg strangely chooses to play exerts of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, op. 29 in German rather than in the original Russian in order to aid in following the libretto, Also remarkable in their absence are the monumental Violin Concertos no. 1 in A minor op. 77 and no. 2 in C sharp minor op. 129, landmark examples of his most personal and creative works according to the composer himself.
Date published: 2009-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More Than Just the Music Yes, Professor Greenberg's exploration of Shostakovich's music leaves us wanting to purchase CDs or downloads of the soviet composer's works, but the true genius of this course lies in the explanation of the historical context of these compositions. The listener feels the angst a Russian composer would suffer under the Stalinist regime that expects nothing but nationalistic music from its composers. Greenberg not only demonstrates his knowledge of music, but his knowledge of history as well. One not only comes to appreciate Shostakovich's musical creations, but comes to understand how the times shaped those creations. A true tour de force for Professor Greenberg: one of his best courses in an oeuvre that has nothing but great lectures.
Date published: 2009-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Biography I have a number of Professor Greenberg's lectures. They are informative and entertaining. I really like Russian music and the details of Shostakovich's life helped to understand his musical ups and downs. One criticism. I really, really wish Professor Greenberg would check up on how to pronounce Russian words. It's really not that difficult.
Date published: 2009-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great Course from Prof. Greenberg I have to echo other reviewers in pointing out, not only is Prof. Greenberg one of the finest lecturers at The Teaching Company, but the one who is able to make a great case for 20th century music. I don't think I've every listened to any of Prof. Greenberg's lectures without going to Amazon or a local used CD store to buy music. And I never thought I'd be interested in a Soviet composer. I especially appreciate Prof. Greenberg's focus on Shostakovich's chamber works and their importance in the history of chamber music. Be prepared to be converted.
Date published: 2009-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential Perhaps more than any other composer, Shostakovich demands that the listener understand his life circumstances to begin to understand his music. This series is an essential way of beginning to understand both. Bravo to Robert Greenberg!
Date published: 2009-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best of the Best This is one of Greenbergs best biographies . . . and they are all excellent. Mr Greenberg is simply the best Professor for presenting information with humor and insight. Always entertaining and highly opinionated, he delivers his lectures in a conversational manner without excessive reading. He gets my highest recommendation for this and all his offerings.
Date published: 2009-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Greenberg Masterwork I've raved in other reviews about Prof. Greenberg, and I hope I don't sound too repetitious in lauding him yet again. I have listened to every course offered by TTC with Prof Greenberg as the lecturer and I have not yet been disappointed. This series, on Shostakovich, I was prepared in advance to not be interested in. This because I tend not to enjoy modern music as much as that of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, hearing the narrative of Shos. life in this series of 8 lectures really did impress me. I learned much about the misery of life under Stalin, and came to an understanding of the life on an artist, trying to come to grips with the life and death struggle in the Soviet Union of the time. After listening to this series, I purchased copies of all of Shos. symphonies and String Quartets to add to my IPOD. Greenberg made me a convert.
Date published: 2008-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a character! It almost seems like Greenberg met the man and was giving us a glimpse into the man's soul! Love the stories surrounding the music!
Date published: 2008-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thank you for providing such enrichment to my retirement years.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Greenberg paints an outstanding picture of his life and music and the political and historic context to understand what Shostakovich had to deal with during his lifetime.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In a series featuring outstanding professors, Dr. Greenberg is the Michael Jordan of lecturers.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have found all of your courses to be an exceptional learning experience, especially the lectures of Prof. Greenberg.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I am in the process of taking a college course at my own leisure and loving it.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm a physician who put off learning the fine arts to concentrate on science. Your lectures have rekindled what I gave up in college.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shostakovich and Greenberg are an inspiration.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have enjoyed a number of Dr. Greenberg's courses, but he showed more passion here than I have ever heard from him.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent program courses - I am so grateful to Teaching Co for making these courses available.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Poor Dmitri! How is possible to measure the terror he underwent during the Terror of Stalin's regime? Yet he produced his classic works, memorable and often heart tending.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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