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 4 out of 5 by from A tragic life No composer that I know of faced more horrors throughout his career than Shostakovich, and it profoundly affected his music. Professor Greenberg can barely restrain his anger as he recounts the cruelty of the Stalin regime and the constant fear the composer lived under. My only regret is that there is not more music presented. I would think anyone who loves the profoundly moving music of Shostakovich would find this course worthwhile. I purchased the video version, but this adds little value.
Date published: 2020-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shastakovich I've loved Shostakovitch for more than 50 years. I highly recommend this course because the professor is funny and a marvelous lecturer. I so enjoyed it.
Date published: 2020-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too much politics The political context is very important to understanding this composer. Nevertheless, the lectures would be substantially improved by giving less attention to the politics and more to the music itself.
Date published: 2020-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A real thrill to listen to. More than once! I loved this disc set; have bought virtually everything Robert Greenberg has produced for Great Masters, enjoyed every one. Greenberg makes Shostakovich come alive in all his well-justified fears, his survival instincts and above all the greatness of his music, truly one of the great composers of the 20th Century. Will keep watching for more of Dr. Greenberg's
Date published: 2019-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shostakovich, mirror of 20th century Russia. Dr. Greenberg delivers a tour-de-force of Shostakovich's music as a reflection of 20th century Russian history. The composer's life and times are poignantly chronicled in a series of accolades and persecutions, by Stalin and his henchmen, resulting in the greatest string quartets, and some of the greatest symphonic works, of today's repertoire.
Date published: 2019-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bought this just after I saw the NYPhilharmonic play the 7th Symphony and was very glad I did for Greenberg's grasp on the place of Shostpkovich in Russian history.
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful biographical survey I finished this course in two concentrated days and found it to be fascinating and very insightful. The major theme of the course is to try to explain how life in Soviet Russia – particularly under Stalin’s rule -was like. One day Shostakovich could be hailed as THE singular genius of 20th century Russian music, and the next day he could be condemned as an enemy of the people and promoter of the decadent Western Bourgeoise values, with all his work forbidden for performance and himself ousted. All this depending solely on the whim of government officials’ arbitrary perception of his work. Professor Greenberg’s descriptions of the terror that Shostakovich felt during the bad periods, in which he expected to hear a knock on the door during the night followed by a quick execution or a deportation to Siberia, were extremely vivid and emotionally evocative. Even during the good periods, he constantly had to fear getting on someone’s bad side and losing everything. All of this background is absolutely critical for understanding his work, since he was not a composer free to express himself as he wished, and Professor Greenberg explains quite thoroughly how in many of his pieces, the expressions that were associated with his music were not what he had intended at all. He was not able to publish much of this, however, until his death - for fear of communist retaliation. The other great aspect of this course was that I was not at all familiar with his work, and I found many of the pieces very interesting and probably worth a more in-depth hearing in the future. Professor Greenberg repeats many times that it is not fair to consider Shostakovich a coward for not openly expressing his artistic muse, since that would have gone totally opposite to a healthy survival instinct. He was a survivor first, and composer second – and who could blame him? Professor Greenberg delivery, as always, is absolutely first rate. In this biograph – probably because of Shostakovich’s own misery caused by his persecution by the Government, he was not as funny as he usually is. But he was able to convey very vividly the terror that Shostakovich had to live with on a day to day basis, and by extension, the terror that almost all of the Russians had to live through during the communist era.
Date published: 2018-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The State and Shostakovich I began the Great Masters series over three years ago with Haydn and now finish with Shostakovich. I won’t repeat most of my comments on Dr. Greenberg’s delivery, other that to note that I like his style and that (except for a bit in the first lecture) it is quite muted in this course. Appropriately, considering the subject’s life and times. Even those who dislike the Greenberg shtick will likely not be put off with his delivery during this course. The trick in these life/music biographies is getting the mix of music and the “life and times” of the composer just right. Almost always some reviewers opt for more music, although I’ve always felt that I can listen to a full recording at my leisure. In any case, Professor Greenberg gets the mix just right for Shostakovich, often commenting that we need to get a recording and not just take an excerpt out of context. More than most composers covered in this series, Dmitri Shostakovich’s music seems to be more influenced by the times and his reaction to how the Soviet State impinged on his life and the lives of those around him. I for one was really not aware that he had continually fallen in and out of favor with the authorities. Now this has happened to many or even most musicians who were dependent on patronage for work and survival. But in this case, falling out of favor often had drastic or fatal consequences. And even being in favor meant walking a tightrope so as not to slip off, back once again into disfavor. Professor Greenberg does a masterful job of tying the need to not offend the authorities to being able to compose music with integrity. Here he uses musical selections to demonstrate that the composed music was at odds with the public statements in support of the State. There are plenty of personal tidbits along the way. My favorite was that his first wife Nina was a beautiful physicist and that the couple for all their problems could not stand not to live together. I also loved finding out that he was an avid football fan. As a bit of an aside, I am sure that Dr. Greenberg could do a better job of pronouncing Russian. And that it offends those who are fluent in the language. I for one am glad that he has spent his time researching the musical and personal history of these musicians, writing his own compositions and taking time to prepare all of these courses (as well as the many other projects in which he is involved). Little enough time left over to go to a baseball game, much less getting all of the names in Russian, German, French, etc. with the proper accent. I’ll take another course rather than get the names pronounce correctly.
Date published: 2018-10-13
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