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Great Masters: Shostakovich—His Life and Music

Examine how this composer's life raises challenging and exciting issues that transcend music and touch on questions of the moral role of the artist.
Great Masters: Shostakovich-His Life and Music is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 75.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly interesting. Prof. Greenberg tells of the USSR during the 1930s when Stalinist ideologues brought grief and genuine fear to the arts community. Poor Shostakovich. In Lecture #3 (Lady Macbeth) we learn that his 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Op. 29, was condemned in Pravda (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) as “Muddle Instead of Music” and banned for nearly almost thirty years, until 1961. Lecture #4 (Resurrection) tells the story of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 —completed, scheduled to premiere on 11 December 1936 in Leningrad, and cancelled to forestall threatened reprisals against the conductor, performers and composer. Altogether, a fascinating history lesson, and an introduction to some wonderful music. HWF and ISF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2024-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Correct Think and the Hero The course itself is simultaneously historical and musical. Greenberg’s mastery is demonstrated in his precise correlation between music selections and historical events. Stunning events in Shostakovich's life are enumerated throughout the course. They mirror “the rise and history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1975" (Lecture 1 = L1). For example, L1 relates how his 7th Symphony was broadcast across Leningrad during the German siege and into German lines via huge speakers. Its initial "Invasion Theme" (L5) portrayed the Nazi approach with a banality growing into dissonance - "the musical equivalent of a cancerous tumor”. There are 8 lectures yet the Guidebook is 67 pages so few would need a Transcript. If you’re ever feeling "pressured” by events, listen to this course and rejoice in the ease of your life. Shostakovich suffered lymphatic TB as a youth, typhoid during the siege of Leningrad, and polio later in life. Worse than any of this, his story rivets the reader to the terrors of political “correct think". Under Stalin, he was repeatedly fired, forced to apologize, and more than once faced death over writing politically incorrect music. Again and again, through his music you will clearly hear the scream of suffering Russian people. Shostakovich survived Stalin via his duplicitous mollifying of government stooges versus his music capturing communism's harsh reality. Bolder than the bravest soldier, Shostakovich played cat and mouse not only with government “reviewers”, but with the worst evil the world has ever known: Stalin and the Red Revolution. Greenberg (L2) describes the Red Russians (communists) during the Russian civil war as particularly using “almost genocidal brutality". As L2 relates, from 1917 to 1991, the Soviet communists were responsible for 61,911,000 nonmilitary deaths vs. the Nazi's 20,949,000. L5 tells us that Stalin expected Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony to "glorify the leader", yet its first movement piccolo solo sounded like "the word pipsqueak, glaring brass." L6 relates the consequences. While his international status precluded death, his ten-year old son was “made to denounce his father during elementary school exams” and Shostakovich was forced to read scripted speeches at the US Congress of Peace and Culture.” After forcing artistic societies into state-serving unions, Stalin suffocated dissent for his disastrous “Five Year Plan" (L3). Shostakovich, however, avoided composer groups and was considered a holy fool (”yurodivy”) protesting in the name of humanity, not political change (L1). His main difficulty was avoiding “formalism" - i.e.: anything dissonant with party position. It caused his 4th Symphony to be cancelled on its premiere as “reviewers" convinced him to be "dissatisfied" with it. For the next two years, he earned nothing. His 5th symphony (L4) put his life on the line. The premiere’s audience understood that he was portraying the Great Terror, “wept openly during the third movement" and applauded for an hour at its end. Yet his compositional brilliance fooled the stooges and he wrote of his "joy at being accepted back into …the Soviet cultural family.” When the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, he wrote his 6th Symphony complete with “moods of spring, joy, youth, and lyricism". Again the stooges missed the sarcasm: Shostakovich hated “cheap, light music”. L7 describes his description of the Russian hatred of the Jews that created “…a symbol for him of the defenselessness of all mankind." Lectures 6-8 describe Shostakovich's physical decline and his growing hopelessness. Yet his brilliance allowed his 13th symphony to be played despite plotting by the authorities. During the opening of his 14th, a horrendous tormentor (Apostolov) fell ill and died shortly after Shostakovich’s introductory words: “Death is on his guard, think of your conscience." RELEVANT TODAY? Greenberg's elucidation of the meaning behind Shostakovich’s symphonies, operas, etc. shows the power of music to reflect a society under assault from within. Are there unpaid consequences for today’s unipolar university, media, and federal officers? Does the treatment of Shostakovich's son at school sound uncomfortably like today's attack on parents by school boards? Does Lenin’s L1 "abolishment of all landlord property without compensation" remind you of todays World Economics Forum phrase: "You'll own nothing and be happy"? Do you wonder if there might be any parallel between a Soviet Union that “died bankrupt” (L1) and today’s national debt as it rises asymptotically towards infinity? Take this course and understand why Greenberg describes the great Shostakovich (in his Course Scope) as “…a survivor, a witness, and an artist who spoke for all of humanity".
Date published: 2022-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Timely Professor Greenberg, or as he calls himself sometimes jokingly - Monteverdi - did it again. His knowledge and presentation is superb. I got this course because of current world events and wanted to know more
Date published: 2022-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from We knew next to nothing about this composer So glad we listened to this lecture as we knew very little about Shostakovich although we played his music in community orchestra. This was a real eye opener on his life and compositions. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2022-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Must enjoyable If people will listen to one lecture the world would be a better place.
Date published: 2022-01-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from lecture opened new world for me After having previously listened to about 6 lecture series of Dr. Greenberg this one was especially enjoyable and opened the door to Shostakovich's music. The numerous quotes were helpful, the music examples made me curious to search and capture more of the remarkable chamber music of this composer. There was very little time to focus on Shostakovich's composition style and technique. Dr. Greenberg may find time for these aspects in the next lecture series on Shostakovich.
Date published: 2021-10-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A tragic life No composer that I know of faced more horrors throughout his career than Shostakovich, and it profoundly affected his music. Professor Greenberg can barely restrain his anger as he recounts the cruelty of the Stalin regime and the constant fear the composer lived under. My only regret is that there is not more music presented. I would think anyone who loves the profoundly moving music of Shostakovich would find this course worthwhile. I purchased the video version, but this adds little value.
Date published: 2020-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shastakovich I've loved Shostakovitch for more than 50 years. I highly recommend this course because the professor is funny and a marvelous lecturer. I so enjoyed it.
Date published: 2020-06-06
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Discover the extraordinary life, times, and music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the great composer who proved to be a faithful witness to the survival of the human spirit under totalitarianism. In Great Masters: Shostakovich—His Life and Music, award-winning composer and Professor Robert Greenberg reveals why Shostakovich is, without a doubt, one of the most central composers of the 20th century. In addition to exploring the intriguing facets of his symphonies and string quartets, you also examine how this composer's life raises challenging and exciting issues that transcend music and touch on questions of the moral role of the artist.


Robert Greenberg

For thousands of years cultures have celebrated themselves through their music. Let us always be willing and able to join that celebration by listening as carefully as we can to what, through music, we have to say to one another.


San Francisco Performances

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions-which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles-performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.

He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres.

Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

You can find more music content from Robert Greenberg on Patreon:

By This Professor

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works
Music as a Mirror of History
Great Music of the 20th Century
Symphonies of Beethoven
The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition
Let the Controversy Begin

01: Let the Controversy Begin

No composer's music seems to mirror world events and the experiences of his own life more fully than does that of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. Publicly, the composer explained his work as a tribute to Soviet ideology and people. But privately he detailed the real impetus behind his music: his experiences during the Terror of Stalin, the Nazi destruction of his country, postwar reconstruction, and the arms race.

49 min
The Kid's Got Talent!

02: The Kid's Got Talent!

Shostakovich attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory and at age 19 wrote the Symphony no. 1. When it was premiered in 1926, he was vaulted into instant fame. In 1927, he wrote a patriotic symphony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Revolution, the Symphony no. 2 in B Major, a more modern and dissonant work than the First.

46 min

03: "Lady Macbeth"

In 1927 to 1930 Shostakovich wrote orchestral music, a ballet score, and his first opera, "The Nose", which was well received by the public but slammed by critics for lacking Soviet ideology. When Stalin saw his next major work, the opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," he pronounced it "degenerate" and issued threats against those who would perform it. Shostakovich was suddenly sanctioned and threatened as a purveyor of "bourgeois musical formalism."

47 min

04: Resurrection

Shostakovich was told that he had to reject his "formalist mistakes" of the past and submit any future work to the Committee for Artistic Affairs for screening. Under that pressure he composed his Fifth Symphony. The first-night audience for the Fifth clearly understood the work as a statement about the Great Terror, but Shostakovich was nevertheless officially declared ";rehabilitated." His next project was a string quartet, and although new to Shostakovich, the String Quartet no. 1 in C Major shows that he had already mastered the genre.

45 min
The Great Patriotic War

05: The Great Patriotic War

Shostakovich became a hero of the people as he worked in the Conservatory fire-fighting brigade, broadcast messages of assurance on the radio, and appeared on the cover of "Time" magazine. When Symphony no. 7 was finished, the work and the composer became instant symbols of heroism and defiance. Other major works of this period include the Trio in E Minor and Symphony no. 9, a piece that was supposed to glorify Stalin but instead evokes an image of the mouse that roared.

47 min
Repression and Depression

06: Repression and Depression

After the war, Shostakovich composed his first string quartet masterwork, the String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, but again was in the line of Party fire. He faced charges of formalism and was expected to publicly apologize to Stalin and the Soviet people. He was also fired from his teaching jobs and forced to acknowledge speeches denouncing the United States. He withheld from performance his String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, a piece that uses a number of Jewish musical elements. When Stalin died under questionable circumstances, Shostakovich's reaction was relieved but guarded.

47 min
The Thaw

07: The Thaw

After Stalin's death, Shostakovich began to release all the works that he had hidden since 1948. In the 1950s his wife died suddenly, and his mother died less than a year later. He was also asked to take a position that would require him to join the Communist Party. He did, but only to ensure his and his family's safety. He continued to compose radically modern music dedicated to the victims of Fascism, and the Symphony No. 13, which is based on a poem decrying Russian anti-Semitism.

47 min
Illness and Inspiration

08: Illness and Inspiration

The Brezhnev regime, although repressive, essentially left Shostakovich alone, which enabled him to produce extraordinary music. As his health deteriorated he became increasingly an invalid. His last symphony, the Fifteenth, is filled with mysterious musical quotes. It sums up the composer's life, and offers a peek into his bitter, angry, darkly humorous, and powerfully expressive mind.

48 min