Great Music, Great History: Music as a Mirror of History
By Dr. Ted Baehr, Publisher
If you love history and love music, MUSIC AS A MIRROR OF HISTORY is a great course offered at Great Courses as a video course (www.thegreatcourses.com) and on Audible as just the audio version. It is one of many courses by Dr. Robert Greenberg, who is the music historian in residence at San Francisco Performances. Dr. Greenberg has composed more than 50 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles. His lectures are fascinating, and all of them are recommended, but MUSIC AS A MIRROR OF HISTORY is a uniquely great combination of insightful, entertaining history and captivating music, and the lectures are poignant and often very funny.
The lectures cover the greatest musicians, whose greatest music was often written during wars, trials and tribulations, as Dr. Greenberg notes. For instance, Beethoven’s the Farewell Sonata laments the cruel takeover of Vienna by the Napoleonic troops, just as his Wellington’s Victory is a triumphant ode to the defeat of Napoleon. “La Marseillaise” by Berlioz, written at a time of warfare, has become the National Anthem of France.
Greenberg’s lectures help people understand the why of the time and place of the music and the music itself.
When I studied at the University of Munich, I would go to the opera once a week to watch Wagner’s THE RING. Greenberg shows how THE RING was Wagner’s socialist attack on Western Civilization and Culture, a fascinating expose.
Although Greenberg’s ancestors escaped during the Jewish pogroms in Russia, Greenberg has a very positive and objective perspective toward historical events and a deep understanding of patriotism, faith and values. Thus, like the great academics of yesteryear, his insights don’t derive from personal prejudices. When he’s treating overtly Christian symphonies operas and other music, he portrays them in a loving, heartrending way.
Very few historians have as comprehensive understanding of history, philosophy and religion. Greenberg’s ability to look at history, philosophy and religion in terms of music is incredible.
For instance, Shostakovich was born as Tsarist Russian was crumbling in St. Petersburg, and he died in 1975, before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. At one point, an article appeared in the 1930s in a party paper condemning him. Knowing what this meant and that the article may have been one of the many anonymous articles that Stalin wrote, Shostakovich packed a little bag, and lived in dread that during the middle of the night, the secret police would come and remove him either to the Gulag or the killing chambers.
During the slight thaw in the 1960s, he created Symphony No. 13 which married his music with a poem by one of my favorite Russian poets, Yevtushenko. It is a humorous satire of the evils of totalitarian communism. Shostakovich said the only thing left in the midst of totalitarianism is humor.
The symphony and the poem remember a ravine on the outskirts of the capital of Kiev where 100,000 to 150,000 men, women and children, mostly Jews, were slaughtered between 1941 and 1943 by the Soviet government.
When the symphony opened, the audience gave it a standing ovation, because they knew what it meant. Even the wives of the government officials stood and applauded. Then, their husbands forced them to sit down, and the symphony was soon forbidden.
MUSIC AS A MIRROR OF HISTORY confronts the cancel culture and other evils of our time and is highly recommended.