Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dmitri Shostakovich

Music History Monday: Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7

We mark the completion on December 27, 1941 – an even 80 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the so-called “Leningrad Symphony.”  He had begun the symphony at home in Leningrad but completed it in Kuybishev, a city today known by its original name as Samara.  Located on the Volga River just west of the Ural Mountains, Kuybishev-slash-Samara was one of a number of “safe havens” set up by the Soviet government to protect its intelligentsia from the invading Nazi hordes. Background: With Friends Like These . . . On August 23, 1939, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet government signed a pact of nonaggression and friendship with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.  In a secret protocol, among other things, it was agreed that the Soviet Union and Germany would, between them slice ‘n’ dice and then gobble up Poland; and that the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would stay within the Soviet sphere of influence.  In return, Stalin pledged to stay out of any war between Germany and any of the Western democracies. And so the Stalinist demon sold its soul to the Hitlerian devil.  The pact stunned the world.  Russia and Germany – the two great continental […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Shostakovich Sonata for Viola

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a lot of chamber music, including fifteen string quartets.  From almost the beginning of Shostakovich’s career as a composer of chamber music, the viola, the tenor voice of the string quartet – with its full, warm, restrained, and yet masculine tone – had been his instrumental alter ego: his own, personal musical voice.  With Beethoven, it had been the more outgoing and boisterous bass/baritone voice of the ‘cello.  But for the more introspective Shostakovich, it was the viola.  When Shostakovich had something profound and lyric to say, as often as not, it is the viola that says it.  With this in mind, there is something both right and poetic that the last work Shostakovich ever composed was a sonata for viola and piano.  (It’s no surprise that Beethoven identified with the sound of the cello, as his speaking voice was a baritone.  As opposed to Shostakovich, whose scratchy, tobacco-ravaged voice was a tenor.  The video linked below is an interview with Shostakovich filmed in 1975, just months before his death on August 9 of that year.  Shostakovich is expressing his opinion that opera should be sung in the language of the country in which it is being […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Shostakovich’s Death

We mark the death on August 9, 1975 – 46 years ago today – of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich at the age of 68, in Moscow. He was born on September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg. Does Stress Kill? If stress kills, Dmitri Shostakovich should never have lived past the age of 30. In his early teens, as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (or what was then called, the “Petrograd” Conservatory), he and his classmates suffered severe malnutrition due to the Russian Civil War (which ran from 1917-1922). But he survived. In 1936, some eight months before his 30th birthday, he was officially purged on the orders of Joseph Stalin himself during the Great Terror. Few people expected Shostakovich to survive, least of all himself. Later admitting to having been suicidal, he lay awake at night, too terrified to sleep, waiting for the van (the feared “Black Maria”), to take him away. But he survived. In 1941, he survived the early stages of the Siege of Leningrad and in 1948, he was once again purged for writing music considered to be too modern and too personally self-expressive, music that did not subscribe to Soviet ideologic dicta. Again he […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Shostakovich: Time magazine, a String Quartet, and a Symphony!

July 20th was a very important date in the life of the Soviet composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. On July 20, 1942 – 78 years ago today – he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, wearing his Leningrad firefighter’s helmet and becoming, all at once, an international symbol for the Soviet struggle against the invading German horde. On this date in 1962 – 58 years ago today – Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 13, subtitled “Babi Yar”, itself a stunning indictment of Soviet anti-Semitism and truly, the entire Soviet system. How and why he managed to get away with composing and premiering such a symphony without being strung up by his short-‘n’-curlies will be the subject of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Finally, on this day in 1964 – 56 years ago today – Shostakovich completed his String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major, Op. 118. Yes indeed, July 20 was an important date in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. But before we can get to Shostakovich and that Time magazine cover, we’ve got two other events to observe from this day in music history. We begin with a call-out to the songwriter, guitarist, and fusion bandleader Carlos Santana, who […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Show Will Go On!

On December 18, 1962 – 55 years ago today – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 received its premiere in Moscow. It was a premiere that almost didn’t take place, one that did indeed take place even though officially it did not really take place! Here’s what happened Joseph Stalin – the “great leader and teacher” and butcher par excellence – died in March of 1953. He was succeeded as “First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” by Nikita Khrushchev. In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin as being “savage, half-mad and power-crazed” in his famous “secret speech”. Delivered to the 20th Party Congress in February of 1956, the speech was, in fact, anything but secret. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin initiated a period called the “Thaw”, during which domestic repression and censorship in the Soviet bloc were scaled back significantly, until Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964. The Thaw reached its climax in 1962 with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13. Never mind that the Soviet authorities did everything they could to undermine the Symphony’s premiere, and that it was banned outright […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Last week’s “Music History Monday” was about the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 on December 18, 1962 and the official Soviet silence that greeted that premiere on December 19, 1962. We’re going to stay with Shostakovich this week because on January 21, 2017 the Alexander String Quartet and I are going to begin a two-season, nine-concert perusal of the string quartets and chamber music of Dmitri Shostakovich in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. Along with Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, we will examine and perform as well Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 (1940), Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944), and his Viola Sonata Op. 147 (1975). The lessons to be learned from Shostakovich’s life, his times, and his music are as real and relevant today as they were when Shostakovich was alive. Russian repression and adventurism are alive and well today in the kleptocracy of Tsar Vladimir the First as they were under the Soviets. “Mistakes that were made” are once again being made, and Shostakovich’s life and music offer a degree of insight into these current events that few other things can. Art and politics can be problematic bedfellows, but they are an indivisible […]

Continue Reading

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 […]

Continue Reading

Marking the passing of Shostakovich

August 9 marks the 38th anniversary of the death of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. Never a particularly healthy man, what got Shostakovich in the end was lung cancer, the result of a lifetime of chain-smoking those foulest-of-foul “papirosi”: cardboard-tipped Soviet cigarettes. Please a moment of silence (and, if you’re a smoker, perhaps a tobacco-free day) for this superb composer. Art, politics, and current events make problematic bedfellows, but they are a ménage à trois we cannot avoid when talking about Dmitri Shostakovich and his music. Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975, a few weeks shy of his 69th birthday. Shostakovich’s compositional career corresponded exactly with the history of the Soviet Union from 1917-1975. He began attending the St. Petersburg (Petrograd) Conservatory at the very end of the Tsarist era; he graduated and began his career during Lenin’s rule (the early 1920’s); he knew Stalin and was nearly purged twice, in 1936 and 1948; he survived the siege of Leningrad, argued with Khrushchev, and died while Brezhnev was in power. Shostakovich survived because he was considered by the powers that were a Yurodivy, a village idiot, a holy fool who […]

Continue Reading