Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Shostakovich

Music History Monday: Concerts I Would Like to Have Attended (and One I am Glad to have Missed!)

January is usually a concert-heavy month, following, as it does, the holiday-heavy month of December. In a non-COVID environment, theaters thrive in the cold and early darkness of January, as folks look for something to do while they wait out the winter in anticipation of warmer, longer days and baseball season.  January 18th is particularly notable for concerts that have taken place on this date, concerts that with one glaring exception I personally would have been thrilled to attend. Stuck at home as we presently are thanks to you-know-what, let us live vicariously through these January 18 concerts, even as we anticipate – hungrily, hopefully – the soon-enough-to-be attended concerts of January 2022.  We will focus primarily on the first of these concerts – the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose – after which we’ll do a quick prance through five other January 18-specific concert events of note. The Nose We mark the premiere performance on January 18, 1930 – 91 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, which was performed by the Maly Opera Theater in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Completed in 1928 when Shostakovich was just 22 years old, The Nose is based […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Dmitri Shostakovich, Complete String Quartets

Question: is it true that only by working directly with a composer can an ensemble deliver a “definitive” performance? Answer: no. Composer supervision guarantees nothing. Beethoven, for one, oversaw the premieres of every one of his nine symphonies (though the deaf Beethoven’s “oversight” of his Ninth Symphony in 1824 was much more a hindrance than a help). His supervision notwithstanding, we can be assured that he never heard a single one of his symphonies played with the sort of precision and expressive sympathy we routinely hear today. Generally but accurately speaking, modern professional orchestral players – like modern athletes – are simply better than their early nineteenth century counterparts, and they have the advantage of having played Beethoven’s symphonies since they were children. Consequently, we would hazard to say that in his lifetime, Beethoven never heard anything close to a “definitive performance” of any one of his symphonies However, when it comes to chamber music, particularly string quartets, the presence of a composer will consistently make a difference – often a huge difference – in a performance. A chamber group has many fewer working parts than an orchestra, allowing specific issues to be addressed directly and more easily. And a […]

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Music History Monday: Shostakovich and His String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

I’m doing something today that I have never done before in Music History Monday and which, I hope, I will never have to do again. November 2 is not a day bereft of musical events. For example, November 2, 1739 saw the birth, in Vienna, of the composer and violinist Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, who was a friend of Beethoven’s and who went on to become the concertmaster of the Esterhazy Orchestra. November 2, 1752 saw the birth of Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky in St. Petersburg. In 1792, Count Razumovsky became the Russian Ambassador to the Austrian Court in Vienna. It was as a resident of Vienna that he formed his own house string quartet and commissioned Beethoven to compose three quartets for his “Razumovsky String Quartet” (those quartets would be Op. 59, nos. 1, 2, and 3). Beethoven further immortalized Razumovsky by dedicating both his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 to the Count. On this day in 1984, the Reverend Marvin Gaye Sr. was given a suspended six-year sentence and probation for shooting and killing his son, the singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye (1939-1984). Initially charged with first degree murder, the charges were reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it […]

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Music History Monday: Who Says There’s No Such Thing as a “Bad Review”?

On January 28, 1936 – 83 years ago today – an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared on page 3 of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The article – dictated by Joseph Stalin himself to one of hit principal literary hit men, a writer named David Zaslavsky – condemned in the most brutal terms Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In one swell foop, the 29 year-old Shostakovich went from being the brightest artistic star in the Soviet firmament to a cultural enemy of the people, in desperate fear for his life. The condemnation and the terror the article inspired irreparably damaged Shostakovich’s psyche; though he lived for another 39 years, it’s something from which he never recovered. Shostakovich completed his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in 1932. It’s based on a nasty/gnarly story written by the Russian novelist and playwright Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) in 1864. Katerina Izmailova is the young, bored, illiterate, and sexually frustrated wife of a provincial merchant. She goes gaga over a handsome, macho workman named Sergei. Katerina and Sergei become lovers, and in order to keep things going with Sergei Katerina […]

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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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