The Maestro of Context

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When I was in college, I took a music appreciation class. Although, luckily, I continued to appreciate classical music after the course was over, I don’t remember learning much about classical music in that class.

Later in life, when I decided that there was a lot more to life than investing, I engrossed myself in learning about classical music. The world of music and its composers and performers is fascinating.

This time around I had much better luck. I stumbled onto the lectures of Robert Greenberg at The Great Courses. Greenberg is an enigma. He is a composer, pianist, lecturer, and a music historian. He is all that, but he is also an incredibly gifted teacher.

Watch this interview with Larry King and you’ll see what I mean.

I remember seven years ago my son Jonah and I were driving back to Denver from a ski trip to Vail. We were listening to Robert’s lecture about Giuseppe Verdi, the godfather of Italian opera. When we arrived home, Jonah did not want to get out of the car; he wanted to finish listening to Robert’s lecture. Jonah was only 13 then, a normal kid who would usually prefer J Cole to a long-dead Italian composer. Robert has an ability that my college teacher lacked: He brings classical music history alive; he makes it fun, accessible, and interesting.

Listening to classical music has made my life so much richer. Yes, richer. As I am writing this I am listening to the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The joy it brings me no amount of money can buy.

What Robert Greenberg does through his lectures and writings brings another dimension to music: context. Just as by reading a novel we get a glimpse of the soul of the writer, music gives us a glimpse of the soul and emotions of the composer. Learning about the composer provides a texture that enhances the music-listening experience.

Since I mentioned Shostakovich, in 1932 he composed the opera Lady Macbeth. It was an enormous success, propelling the 26-year-old composer to international stardom. His opera was performed in Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), in the US, and all over Europe. Shostakovich became an international celebrity. But then Joseph Stalin and other members of the Communist Party went to see the opera. They did not care for it, and Stalin wrote a scathing review in Pravda (the Soviet newspaper of record).

Shostakovich wrote:

That article on the third page of Pravda changed my entire existence. It was printed without a signature, like an editorial – that is, it expressed the opinion of the Party. But it actually expressed the opinion of Stalin, and that was much more important.

Shostakovich was cancelled by the party. He went from being a Russian source of pride to an enemy of the state overnight. In Soviet Russia when you got cancelled you became radioactive, as anyone around you became guilty by association of whatever you were accused of. Shostakovich’s life was never the same, and he came close to either being executed or exiled to Siberia. This scared him for the rest of his life. Robert Greenberg wrote a terrific article about Shostakovich’s life – read it here.

Robert Greenberg is truly an American treasure.  The pandemic interrupted his recording new lectures on Great Courses (though he told me that he may resume recording new lectures soon), but today he writes weekly articles. You can access a treasure trove of his past articles and podcasts on his site as well.

I never ask my readers for anything, but if you love classical music, if you love learning about it, subscribe to Robert’s articles and then support him on Patreon (you can do it for as little as $5 a month). I am a proud patron of Mr. Greenberg’s work myself.

I don’t like the word support.

When you subscribe to The New Yorker or The Atlantic, you do not think of that subscription as charity or as support – you are paying to receive content. You are paying with your time (that is what money is, stored time) for the time of others. It is a fair exchange of your time for the time others put into the creation of content. This is what Robert Greenberg’s site offers, except that you are avoiding layers of bureaucracy and your money goes directly to the creator of amazing content. 

No matter what level of support you choose, you’ll get the better end of the deal.

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