Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Great Masters: Shostakovich — His Life and Music: Let the Controversy Begin

I am often asked which of the 30 some-odd courses I’ve created for the Teaching Company/Great Courses is my personal favorite. My typical response is to name my most recent course, which presumes that it represents my best, most recent work.

But in truth, it is an impossible question to answer for a number of reasons. I’ve been writing and recording these courses for over twenty years; they are my babies, and no matter how rotten, awful and delinquent they may be, they are mine and I love them. Each course represents a different time of my life and reflects what I knew and felt at that time (in this way, my courses are no different from my musical compositions). Each course represents the best of what I was when I made it. As such, it’s impossible for me to play favorites.

However, if I was asked for which of my courses did I fight hardest to make, and which one tells the single most compelling, amazing, and heart-breaking story, the answers are easy: my Great Masters biography of Dmitri Shostakovich.

In the earliest days of the Teaching Company I was given carte blanche to write and record pretty much anything wanted. (A not-atypical phone call between Tom Rollins – the founder of the Teaching Company – and myself, circa 1995:

“Yo Rocket.” [Tom called me “Rocket” for reasons still obscure]

“Tommy. Wassup?”

“What to you want to do next?”

“How’s about Bach, J. Sebastian?”

“Cool. Are you available in August?”

“Sure. Great. See you then.”)

Those WERE the days. But they passed, and within a couple of years an in-depth process of polling and focus groups was established to determine what should be recorded. When we began discussing the Great Masters series of biographies in 1998, the name at the top of my list was Dmitri Shostakovich. The demise of the Soviet Union was recent, and info coming out of the now “former” Soviet Union was forcing a wholesale reappraisal of Shostakovich’s music.

Do I have to tell you where Shostakovich “polled” on my list of prospective biographies? Dead last. If Vlad the Impaler and Pol Pot had been part-time composers, they would likely have scored higher than Shostakovich; I remember being told that Shostakovich scored lower than any other music topic ever polled by the Teaching Company.

(Ah, polling. I have nothing but respect for the wizards who figure out what the public wants. However, I am honor-bound to point out the following. One, if Tom Rollins had polled the public in 1989 as to the viability of putting university-level courses on cassettes and VHS tape he would have been told to save his money. The “experts” told him as much: people wanted entertainment from their audiovisual media, not edification. Tom was a visionary, and like Steve Jobs, he created something the public didn’t know it wanted until it was available. Two, on these same lines, asking folks what they want to learn is tricky, because as often as not they don’t know what they want to learn until they’ve actually learned something about it. Thus, the marketing strategy for the nascent Teaching Company was “benefit driven”: you will become a happier, healthier, smarter [less bald, slimmer, sexier, etc.] person IF YOU LEARN THE STUFF THAT’S IN THIS COURSE.)

Having been told that Shostakovich was polling road kill, it was clear that if I wanted to make the course, I would have make myself a royal pain in the derriere, a task for which nature – in her wisdom – endowed me well.

The Shostakovich biography was the last of the Great Masters we recorded, sometime in early 2002. I wish I could tell you that the thing initially sold off the charts, but I cannot. For the first couple of years, its sales were as dismal as the pollsters predicted they would be. But what the Shostakovich course did for the Teaching Company/Great Courses catalog was more important than quick sales. It showed that the Great Courses was willing to tackle seemingly “unpopular” subjects, polling be . . . darned. It showed that the Great Courses was willing to deal with controversial subject matter, as the meaning and nature of Shostakovich’s music and his life in the Soviet Union was (and remains) controversial to this day. The inclusion of Shostakovich (and Stravinsky) in the Great Masters catalog balanced the series historically and stylistically, a series otherwise dominated by dead seventeenth and eighteenth Germans.

And there’s more good news. Sales of the Shostakovich course picked up significantly, particularly after Shostakovich’s centennial in 2006. But the best news is that in a poll as to which course you’d like to hear excerpted, you chose the Shostakovich hands down. Now there’s a polling result I can live with.