Shostakovich- The Genius of the 20th Century – Naomi Yoran

The concert this weekend was dedicated to my most admired composer of the 20th century: Dmitri Shostakovich. The PSO, as many other orchestras, celebrated his 100th birthday
and I celebrated by attending this concert twice – on Friday &
Sunday. At the conclusion of Sunday’s concert I still did not have
enough. I wished for a Shostakovich Festival or at least for the orchestra to start playing all over again!


I realize that the program was a good representation of Shostakovich’s music even though it covered just five years of his creative life – ‘Suite from the Ballet: Bolt’ (1930), ‘The First Piano Concerto’ (1933) and the ‘Fifth Symphony’
(1937). I also can appreciate that although the program presented just
3 genres out of all which exist in classical music and which he
composed in, it did reflect the development of this composer’s music
from what I know as his intimate & private to those which express
the feelings of a whole nation under tyranny and ultimately the human
condition struggle under oppression.

So, how did he do it? Or, better to say: what did I hear, felt and reflected upon while listening? What kind of associations came to my mind?

In the ‘Suite from the Bolt’, Shostakovich
was commissioned to compose music to (ultimately a failed) ballet
depicting a broken machine brought back to operation. The four
movements have nothing to do with the story line! At times I heard
gentle, joyful melodies and then, sardonic interruptions! The Tango,
which I expected to sound sensual & passionate, sounded brutal. The
Polka included a “dialog” between a piccolo and a trombone! It was not
just funny, it was absurd!  Wait a minute: This might be the essence of the story if not the musical interpretation of the narrative…

‘Piano Concerto No.1’ is most delightful. Romantic & tender, playful, exuberant and even goofy! For me, this is Shostakovich
when free spirit & pure humor were still part of his life, when his
creative forces were still optimistic. All of that came across so
deliciously in Vladimir Feltsman’s piano playing, Charles Lirette solo trumpet and the orchestra as a whole.

Optimism is all gone in ‘Symphony No.5’. I know enough about the terror under which the people in the Soviet Union
lived before, during and after the time this Symphony was
composed. (From the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 till Stalin’s death in
1953.) Much was written about Shostakovich the man and Shostakovich the
composer about those years of terror which for him started in 1930,
when he was threatened by the authorities as the “enemy of the people”
unless he changed the “formal style” of his music. All of this is
well known. The debate – did he sell out or kept to his inner true voice? –
still goes on. Since I believe that Shostakovich adopted a
public persona agreeable to Stalin and developed “composing in code”
covering up his true feelings, I was impressed by Vassily Sinaisky’s interpretation of this Symphony. Shostakovich sub-titled this Symphony: “A reply for correct criticism”.
He offered realistic music with a happy ending! In the first three
movements I felt tenderness, romance, even playfulness. But sadness
crept in at each movement. Solo instruments (oboe, piccolo, bassoon
& harp), where “conversing” with the full orchestra as (in my mind)
the composer was conversing with his people. The fourth movement
concluding the symphony was supposed to be a celebration! But was it?
In this performance and I believe that in all performances following
Stalin’s death, the sound of music is transformed to horrific &
chilly. The movement as a whole was played with such a powerful
frightening sound and concluded with terrifying timpani “hammerings”
that there was no doubt in my mind that Shostakovich offered
his utmost anguished soul to us. these were his true feelings. His genius
tapped & expressed the terror of each individual who was supposed
to be happy but was afraid to be killed for no reason.

questions I am asking myself are whether this music depicts a
particular time in history, is Shostakovich relevant only to the
depiction of political terror and is it possible that after all, this
Symphony was composed to further his artistic career? Being familiar with other of his Symphonies (especially the 9th, 10th, 13th and even his 7th Symphony- ‘The Leningrad’) & chamber music, I venture to say that although Shostakovich
composed in a particular time he is relevant not only to his (& his
people’s) experiences but to past and future horror. I believe that this
music could have resonated with the horror following the French
Revolution as well as the Cultural Revolution in China.
I also believe that the universal emotions of calm sadness might be
transformed into great terrifying feelings when (any) emotional stress
becomes unbearable.

So this is a state of the human condition. I don’t think that a listener who knows nothing
about the composer & his time will miss the impact of this music. I
believe that for future generations this music will still speak. It
belongs to humanity. For me, this by itself makes Shostakovich a genius composer.

So what about “selling out” (in musical style & all other public
activities he is accused of) to further a career? To my mind comes Galileo.
Did he not bow down to the inquisition and “agreed” that the sun moves
around the earth? Does anyone condemn him for staying alive?  In my mind, Shostakovich
felt an incredible obligation to his art and to humanity to continue
composing. He could have ended his life to avoid terror. This would
have been a selfish act. He chose life as painful, even tragic as it
was. But out of it and even more: despite it, he created great music.                         

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