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Official Description

F26: Shostakovich and Other Russian Composers NEW
The 20th century was a tumultuous time for the arts and an especially turbulent time for music in Russia. There was a public demand (from Stalin) that composers write “for the people.” Many symphonic works from Shostakovich and his peers were indeed written to fulfill this directive, but different voices could be heard in their chamber works. To set the stage, we'll examine the birth of Russian classical music in the second half of the 19th century. Our primary focus will be on the life, times, and music of Shostakovich, the pre-eminent composer of the period, but we'll also dip into some of the lesser-known music from that time and place as we sample music from peers such as Weinberg, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and Stravinsky. We'll play musical excerpts (mostly from YouTube), examine the pressure applied to Soviet artists, and discuss the impact that pressure had on musical creation. Evolving plans for the course can be found at: LIFEcourses.ca/Shostakovich.

Bob Fabian has led a number of LIFE courses. He previously presented two music courses featuring the music of J.S. Bach. Bob started as a serious musician in high school, but his career was in consulting and computing. In this (and his previous music courses), he's returning to his musical roots.

Limited to 50 participants
Oct. 6 – Nov. 10 (6 sessions)
Time: Tuesdays, 2:10 p.m. – 3:55 p.m.
Fee: $45.00

[Course Thoughts – July 2015]

Thinking about what material to present, and how to present it, will continue until October 6th (first class). And then the interaction of class participants will shape what is presented in subsequent sessions. Granting all of that, my thinking about the sessions has taken on a somewhat more defined form.

Let me sketch what is planned for the six sessions:

Session 1: Introductions and expectations will be the first step. What I have planned; what you would like to hear. And then there is the YouTube constraint. The important virtue of using music available on YouTube is that we can listen to excerpts in class and those of you who are interested can go back to hear the entire work in the comfort of your home. But there isn't always a video of the music that might be included. It's going to be a compromise, good video of reasonable performances will generally win out.

Given that the music we'll be examining may not be familiar to all participants, I'll try to present a reasonably long excerpt from every piece we consider – target of 10 to 15 minutes in length. Much of the music will be by Shostakovitch, but we'll also dip into Russian music before Shostakovitch and other Russian music composed in Shostakovitch's day. One of my secondary goals is to present music from some lesser know Russian composers, e.g. Borodin, Myaskovsky, Weinberg, Khachaturian, etc.

My current thinking is to start with Shostakovitch Symphony Number 5, and Number 4. Number 5 was Shostakovitch's first symphony to be performed after Pravda leveled harsh criticism on him in 1936. The result is open, approachable and generally attractive. Symphony Number 4 was not performed until 1961. It's a much denser musical tapestry. And, from my perspective, eventually a more engaging composition. We'll sample both symphonies, and listen to excerpts of the two-piano version.

Session 2: The challenge in this session will be to examine how Russian music came into existence, ... and eventually produced Shostakovitch. One natural starting point was the efforts of the “Mighty Handful” to produce genuine Russian classical music. Before the middle of the 19th century, must nominally Russian music looked to Europe and not to any local musical traditions. The Mighty Handful, led by Balakirev, pushed to break free from the European musical conservatories in St Petersburg and Moscow.

A possible starting point is Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina. It was his last opera and he died before it was completed. Mussorgsky's close friend Rimsky-Korsakov provided the first completed version of the opera. It was first performed in 1881. The 1913 performance in Paris used a version orchestrated and reworked by Ravel and Stravinksy. In the 1950s, Shostakovich reworked the opera yet again. The most often performed version uses Shostakovich's version of the first four acts, concluding with the final act as provided by Stravinsky. The opera is solidly Russian. Its focus is on the Moscow Uprising of 1682.

Russian classical music took off after its beginning in the later part of the 19th century. But there was still resistance in Russia to the “new” music being composed by Russian composers. Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes found a home in Paris, not in St Petersburg or Moscow. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write the music for The Firebird, and in 1913 to write the music for The Rite of Spring. This was a revolutionary piece, fittingly offered by a Russian ballet troupe four years before the revolution of 1917.

Session 3: Music composed between 1917 and 1936, the date of the first serious clamp-down on music that didn't conform to the Socialist Realism aesthetic diktat.

Session 4: Music composed between 1936 and 1953. World War II removed many of the explicit music constraints imposed by Stalin. But all loyal Russian were naturally dedicated to repelling the Nazi invaders. After the war, the controls were reimposed. Change began to come with the death of Stalin in 1953.

Session 5: Music composed between 1953 and 1975, the year Shostakovitch's death. This was a time of increasing cultural freedom, and a time when the Soviet regime often used Shostakovitch as its cultural exemplar. It was also a time of increasing experimentation with “new” forms of classical music.

Session 6: It's not clear how we should best use the last session of this course. One possibility is for class participants to nominate compositions for presentation in class – a session of “favorites”. There's much that will have to be skipped, time is very limited given the broad scope of this course. This last session could be the time when we selectively dip into the vast storehouse of great Russian music that had been ignored in the first five sessions.

[Early Course Notes - June 2015]

Course Structure: The material will be presented in lecture mode, supported by PowerPoint slides. Musical excerpts will provide musical illustrations / examples. The excerpts will be drawn from longer performances available on YouTube. All of the course material will be available online. There will be time for questions and comments, but the lectures, with musical examples, will be the main focus.

Initial Thinking: I committed to presenting a LIFE Institute course on "Shostakovich and Other Russian Composers". Now I need to figure out what to present, and how to present it. As a general stylistic rule, I will play musical selections that can be found on YouTube. We can listen (and watch) selected bits during class. Those interested are then free to go back to the full video presentation at their leisure. In the previous music courses I presented at LIFE, that approach seemed to work. We were able to cover considerable musical ground without denying anyone the opportunity to hear complete versions, ... by going back to the YouTube source on their own.

I expect to do the same in this course. The challenge for me is to decide what can and should be covered. Shostakovich will clearly be front-and-centre. But how much historical context should be included? And what range of Russian composers in Shostakovich's life should be included? The big names should be covered (Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev), but so should the work of people like Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Weinberg fled Poland as the Nazis invaded. He became a younger musical friend of Shostakovich, and cross influences can be found in the music of both composers. In addition, some of Weinberg's music has great merit, especially his chamber works.

Russian classical music really started in the 19th century. There was music in Russia before that time, but it was all either imported from Europe or informal folk music. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that there was a serious effort to develop a native Russian musical voice. Musorgsky's Khovanshchina is an interesting example of an early Russian opera. Musorgsky was one of "The Five", educated men who did not come to music through the established conservatories. Khovanshchina was his last opera and he died before it was completed. Musorgsky's close friend Rimsky-Korsakov provided the first completed version of the opera. It was first performed in 1881.

The performance in 1913 of the work in Paris used a version orchestrated and reworked by Ravel and Stravinksy. In the 1950s, Shostakovich reworked the opera yet again. The most often performed version uses Shostakovich's version of the first four acts, concluding with the final act as provided by Stravinsky. The opera is solidly Russian. Its focus is on the Moscow Uprising of 1682. It was conceived as a Russian work, ... by a leading member of "The Five". It was initially reworked by Rimsky-Korsakov, another member of "The Five". It was reworked get again by Stravinsky, a leading Russian composer who came into prominence before the revolution in 1917. And it was reworked yet again by the leading Soviet composer - Shostakovich.

All of which suggests the following historical picture of Russian composers:

  • Begin with "The Five", maybe include a bit of P. I. Tchaikovsky.
  • Move on to the Russian composers active before the Revolution - Stravinsky et al
  • Shift to the Russian composers who were active early in the Revolution, e.g. Myaskovsky
  • Then comes early Shostakovich (who was born in 1906) and early repression of "deviants"
  • World War II happens, the times are changed, and Weinberg arrives in Russia
  • Shostakovich and Weinberg play leading musical roles through the 1960s
  • But there were a gaggle of other talented post-war Russian composers, e.g. Boris Tchaikovsky

My current thought is to end the story with the death of Shostakovich in 1975. We'll examine some of what came before Shostakovich, but mostly focus on music during the Soviet years. In my view, far too little of that music is widely known in the West. The Soviet government was very selective in what it allowed the outside world to see. It was also selective in what was widely distributed within Soviet Russia. The large symphonic and operatic works were all required to conform. Chamber works were not examined as carefully, or distributed as widely. We'll sample the "big" works, but also dip into the less conforming chamber works.

Caution: This represents my thinking in mid-June. An important part of why I lead LIFE music courses is because I get to explore musical worlds that interest me. The benefit, for me, is that I learn more about subjects that I find interesting. One consequence is that a course is only "put to bed" one session at a time, and only shortly before each session is to be presented. I confidently expect that the actual course will not be what is described in this early note. Stay tuned, ... I'll update this page as my thinking develops.


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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location