This week’s classical radio blog is the first in an occasional series about one of my favourite “classical” composers of the 20th Century – Dmitri Shostakovich. There are many reasons he is one of my faves – but it’s largely because there is a mixture of the sarcastic, the driven, the humorous, the edgy, the fearful and the desperately sad about his music. To me, the character of the 20th Century summarised to a tee. You’ll never hear his music played at a Liberal Party function nor have a special Glee episode dedicated to him.
One of my favourite Shostakovich symphony movements is the 3rd movement of the 8th, which we wrote as a response to the machine like passage of the war, trampling on the spirits of the Soviet people. Just who the machines were driven by is not said. But it’s oft been said that Stalin has more of a presence here than Hitler. It’s performed here with an entirely undemonstrative air by the man who conducted more premieres of Shostakovich than anyone else, Yevgeny Mravinsky.
Shostakovich’s life story followed the mood swings of the Soviet Union experiment, as he was 11 when the revolution occurred. He started as a favoured son of the new cultural growth, encouraged to write whatever he liked and the state looked after his wellbeing. And so he did. Whole ranges of wild, vivid music that was unlike music of the old Russian composers like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov.
Unfortunately, for Shostakovich, like the Soviet Union in general, Stalin came along. And Stalin had strong ideas of what his people should be creating – like any person with power over cultural production. And Stalin knew he didn’t like this opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
So, after years of success in Soviet Union and Europe, Pravda featured a review that many attribute to Stalin, or at least one of his operatives –
“Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera – the same basis on which “Leftist” Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word – which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of “Meyerholdism” infinitely multiplied. Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly”.
Yes, leftist. Sound familiar? Have resonances for our time? As a result of this review – and especially the “may end very badly”, Shostakovich packed a suitcase with some belongings next to his door, ready for the time when the NKVD would take him off to Siberia, just as had happened to his friends, including Vsevolod Meyerhold. He also put one of his wildest symphonies – the 4th – in the drawer, leaving it unperformed until after Stalin’s death.
The 5th Symphony was quickly written and with it came a subtitle – “A Composer’s Response to Just Criticism”. It was a success, because it was seen to emulate an older style, more relevant to working peoples. It is still one of his favourite works – especially the moving 3rd Movement. But, like a lot of Shostakovich’s work, it was seen to have two meanings. One was the public meaning, about pleasing working peoples – and the other was the private one – which on this occasion was the pain and suffering of people under Stalin. Either way, the Largo is a moving piece of music.
It was after the Soviet Union suffered through the Second World War and Shostakovich produced the 8th Symphony, which started this blog. And that will do for this week. At some stage down the track, I’ll go through his piano music – more complexity, more beauty.