Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Shostakovich

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Shostakovich Symphony No. 10

After Dmitri Shostakovich’s death in August of 1975 and his “posthumous rehabilitation” by the Soviet authorities (do you love that phrase “posthumous rehabilitation” as much as I do?), the Soviet authorities declared that their dear, departed Dmitri Dmitriyevich was: “Soviet Russia’s most loyal musical son.”  Back in 1975, who could argue with them? The “public” Shostakovich – the Shostakovich we read about in newspapers and saw on his rare trips outside of the Soviet Union – said whatever he was told to say and did what he was told to do by the Soviet authorities. He publically debased himself and begged forgiveness for his “artistic sins” after having been censured in both 1936 and 1948. In 1960, at the age of 54, he joined the Communist Party when Khrushchev told him to do so. He allowed his name to be signed at the bottom of anti-Western rants and editorials, while he fidgeted, twitched, and, literally, smoked himself to death. Shostakovich’s censure in 1948 was particularly agonizing. Just seven years before he had been proclaimed “A Hero of the Soviet People” for having stayed in Leningrad during the beginning of the siege and for having composed his Symphony No. 7, the… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Well Tempered Clavier and Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues

Background Johann Sebastian Bach: Well Tempered Clavier What is referred to as the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) is actually two separate sets of compositions, arrayed as Book One and Book Two. Each “book” contains 24 sets of preludes and fugues: one prelude and fugue in each major and minor key. Book One is a mix-and-match collection that evolved from a series of preludes that Bach composed and compiled for his son Wilhem Friedmann in 1720. Over the next two years Bach extended and added to the collection, until – in 1722 – he went public with an album of 24 preludes and fugues.  This first collection of 24 preludes and fugues – “Book One” – proved to be so popular that between 1738 and 1742 Bach composed a second set of 24 additional preludes and fugues, which was issued as “Book Two”.  It was the WTC (Books One and Two) that kept Bach’s name alive during the decades of obscurity that followed his death in 1750. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, the WTC was considered to be the basic manual for keyboard training.  Mozart was introduced to the Well-Tempered Clavier by his… 

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Music History Monday: One of a Kind!

On April 23, 1891 – 127 years ago today – the composer and pianist Sergei Prokofiev was born in the village of Sontsovka, in Ukraine. He was, very simply, one of a kind: a brilliant, tungsten-steel-fingered pianist; a great composer; and one of the most irksome and narcissistic artists ever to ply his trade (no small statement given the character flaws of so many professional artists). He grew up an isolated, only child on an estate managed by his father. He was homeschooled and rarely played with the local kids, who were considered to be “social inferiors” by his parents, a parental attitude that no doubt helped to foster the overweening arrogance and snobbery that characterized Prokofiev’s personality from the beginning. A prodigy as both a pianist and composer, in 1904 – at the age of 13 – he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev was not a popular student. He was, by pretty much all surviving accounts, a total jerk. For example, he laughed out loud when his fellow piano students made mistakes and went so far as to actually keep a roster of the mistakes committed by his classmates. (This would have earned him a dislocated jaw where… 

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Music History Monday: A Very Dangerous Opera

84 years ago today – on January 22, 1934 – Dmitri Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, received its premiere in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and opened two days later in Moscow. Lady Macbeth was, from day one, a smash hit. It was declared a masterpiece, the best Russian opera since Musorgsky; one reviewer said that such an opera: “Could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best traditions of Soviet culture.” With the premiere of Lady Macbeth, the 28 year-old Shostakovich’s international reputation as the leading Soviet composer was locked in. By 1936, it had been performed 83 times in Leningrad and 97(!) times in Moscow; within five months of its premiere it had been broadcast five times. In the two years following it’s premiere Lady Macbeth was performed in New York, Stockholm, London, Zurich, Copenhagen, Argentina and Czechoslovakia. Inside the Soviet Union, Shostakovich became a celebrity: his artistic plans and progress, his comings and goings, were tracked by the press; his ideas on topics both musical and nonmusical were solicited, and he was elected a deputy of Leningrad’s October District. And then on January 26, 1936, the sky fell. Joseph Stalin,… 

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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… 

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Music History Monday: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13

The Premiere That Almost Wasn’t: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 Wednesday, December 19, 1962 was significant for something that didn’t happen. On the day before – Tuesday, December 18, 1962 – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 received its premiere in Moscow with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the bass soloist Vitali Gromadsky, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and the basses of the Gnessin Institute and Republican State Choirs. The symphony – which set to music five poems by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (who was 29 years old at the time of the premiere) – created a sensation. Yevtushenko recalled: “At the symphony’s premiere, the audience experienced something rare: for fifty minutes, they wept and laughed and smiled and grew pensive.” The Russian-American sculptor Ernst Neizvestny remembered: “It was major! There was a sense of something incredible happening. The interesting part was that when the symphony ended, there was no applause at first, just an unusually long pause—so long that I even thought that it might be some sort of conspiracy. But then the audience burst into wild applause with shouts of ‘Bravo!’ At the time of the premiere, the 56 year-old Dmitri Shostakovich was a Soviet icon, an institution, the most famous and… 

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Shostakovich — His Life and Music Playlist

Enjoy five excerpts from the “Great Masters: Shostakovich — His Life and Music” course in a new playlist on the Robert Greenberg YouTube Channel. Lecture highlights in the playlist: Shostakovich — His Life and Music: An Introduction Lady Macbeth The Fifth Symphony The Tenth Symphony The Eighth String Quartet Buy the Course More Great Courses 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.

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… 

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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… 

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