Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Great Masters: Shostakovich — His Life and Music

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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.

The Details

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.

Course Overview

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.

Great Masters: Shostakovich — His Life and Music Lectures

  1. Let the Controversy Begin
  2. The Kid’s Got Talent!
  3. Lady Macbeth
  4. Resurrection
  5. The Great Patriotic War
  6. Repression and Depression
  7. The Thaw
  8. Illness and Inspiration