This post focuses on the background behind the music of Shostakovich's 5th, taken from an earlier post at my main blog, Thoughts on a Train, about Shostakovich's music and politics.
|Conductor Mravinsky & Composer Shostakovich, 1937|
Several years ago, a friend took me to hear an open rehearsal with Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. I forget what major work was to be on the program but the moment I will always remember from that experience concerned the orchestra’s first read-through of a work they’d never performed before: Hindemith’s little-known Symphony in E-flat which I’d never even heard of before. They read through the scherzo (the lighter movement of a symphony which translates from the Italian as “joke”) and I thought “okay, cute, kind of scurrying and unsettled, but in a hushed kind of way, cute.” Then Muti said “Yes, but it’s supposed to be... spooky!”
With that, he flung out his arms, hunkered his head down between his shoulders – one could almost see the glare in his eyes from our balcony seats – and they began again.
This time, the music was riveting, spooky above all, and almost demonic, like some breathless nightmare. After they’d read through the notes, now the orchestra gave the music its soul. But they were the same notes: how could two run-throughs make it sound like an entirely different piece? I’ve never heard another recording of the piece match the fear and intensity of that rehearsal.
What is it about music that allows two interpretations to be so radically different? Hindemith wrote the piece in the summer of 1940, shortly after he’d arrived in America as a voluntary exile from Hitler’s Germany in the months following the start of the Second World War. Think about it.
While music can be considered on its own value – whatever that may be – the life of its composer and the times in which it was composed often have some bearing on an even more elusive aspect of art: its “meaning” (whatever that may be).
One of the great things about art, of course, is that it transcends all of that to speak to each individual on a unique basis. The biography of a piece of music is full of certain facts and tinged with interpretation, just like the biography of the person who wrote it. One supplements the other and yet the music can be appreciated without our needing to be aware of either.
The 1936 denunciation appeared in the state-run newspaper Pravda (“Truth”) the day after a performance of his most recent success, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been attended by Stalin and his wife who then famously stormed out in the midst of it. The opera had already received rave reviews, had already been running for about 90 performances each in Moscow and Leningrad when it had even been hailed as the “prototypical Soviet music-drama,” and yet when the unsigned article, “Chaos instead of Music” appeared on page 3 – Shostakovich himself, six-months shy of his 30th birthday, discovered the article after buying a paper in a train station while on a concert tour – even his staunchest supporters dropped him for fear of any contamination.
It was not just a bad review: it was clear the article came not from some disgruntled critic but quite possibly from Stalin himself, whoever may actually have written it.
A week later another scathing attack appeared, this one about his ballet The Limpid Stream, and he was now labeled an “enemy of the people.” He'd seen others arrested for merely espousing non-Soviet principals or pro-Western “decadence” in their art – when would they come for him?
During this year, then, a former companion, a family friend, his mother-in-law and brother-in-law and an uncle were all arrested by the NKVD, the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs. In the midst of composing his 5th Symphony, he himself was called in to be interrogated by the NKVD about his association with a powerful military figure, Mikhail Tukachevsky, a fan of Shostakovich’s music who had recently been implicated in a plot to assassinate Stalin.
The story is told by a friend who recalls the composer telling him how he had been “interviewed” on a Friday but since he could not recall ever discussing politics with Tukachevsky, just music, he was told to return on Monday as if, perhaps, his memory might improve. That weekend, Shostakovich hardly slept. When he left for his second “interview,” his wife had prepared a little bag for him with traveling stuff (like warm underwear) because they feared he would not return but be sent off to a prison like many of his friends.
This time, his name was not on any list of “interviewees” and he was again sent home, only to discover later the officer interrogating him had himself been arrested!
Shortly after Tukachevsky was executed, Shostakovich’s close friend, the musicologist Nikolai Zhilayev, was arrested and executed. A short time before, the composer had shown him part of the new piece he was working on at the moment, his Fifth Symphony. A couple of years later, the poet who wrote the words Shostakovich had set in his film-music, The Counterplan, was executed as well as the poet who wrote the book for his ballet, The Limpid Stream. Even the great theatrical director Vsyevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed, implying even an internationally recognized figure like Shostakovich was perhaps not immune from Stalin’s Terror.
Given that atmosphere, you might understand how a composer who wished to survive to write another day might decide to do the dictator’s bidding only to put his true soul into music that could be left, by the very nature of art, a secret.
Someone called Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony “a Soviet artist’s practical response to just criticism,” a comment that stuck (I think it’s even inscribed in the published score) and on the surface the music genuinely responds to the Pravda attack: instead of screaming dissonance and an acute lack of melody as his earlier music had often been described (or derided), this work veers away from the more aggressive harmonic direction his music had been taking in the previous decade, creating something simpler that could be called a “populist” tone.
Consider, however, the history of his 4th Symphony which he’d begun writing the year before this Pravda article, then completed four months afterwards. After ten rehearsals – wow! – and just days before its scheduled December premiere, he was talked into withdrawing the work, an hour-long extravaganza for a huge orchestra and two nearly half-hour long movements separated by a brief scherzo, music full of violence and violent contrasts that perhaps was even more deserving of Stalin’s complaint about “neurotic” music. Whether it was out of fear or dissatisfaction with the piece, he put it aside (it would not see the light of day for another 25 years).
In mid-April four months later, he began work on the 5th Symphony which he completed in three months: its premiere in November, then, would establish him as an artist rehabilitated. It went on to become perhaps his most popular piece, if not his greatest symphony.
Reports say that during the last movement, many in the audience stood as if royalty had entered the room, as one described it; the ovation at the end, depending on whom you read, lasted a half-hour, 40 minutes, almost an hour. Clearly, Shostakovich had proven he could write a symphony that would reach the Soviet masses.
In many respects, it is a symphony about the struggle with fate – like Beethoven’s 5th, Mahler’s 5th, Tchaikovsky’s 4th and 5th (perhaps it's a 5th Symphony Thing to struggle with fate).
In lectures about his father’s music, Maxim Shostakovich who later became famous for conducting his father’s music, called the 5th his father’s “Heroic” Symphony, quoting his father that “the hero is saying, ‘I am right. I will follow the way I choose.’”
At this point, it becomes impossible to avoid the book that has changed the West’s perception of the composer from a political doormat to a raging undercover dissident, Semyon Volkov’s Testimony which purports to be Shostakovich’s memoirs as told to the author in numerous meetings in the years before his death in 1975, then smuggled out of the country and published in 1979.
In it, we read many new and surprising comments made by the composer regarding many of his major works, including the 5th Symphony, one of the most famous quotes – so famous, it has become part of the Shostakovich Canon – pertaining to the last movement: “I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky’s] Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”
This is certainly a viable comment since it's a famous moment from the very opening scene of what is considered the greatest Russian opera, Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky, an historical opera based on a tsar who usurped the throne, possibly murdering the only available heir, and who desires to be declared the new tsar by the acclamation of the people. Only the people are not willing to do so until forced by the police to beg Boris to become tsar. Did people in the 1870s see this scene as a comment on the Russian social system? Perhaps not at the moment, but I think many Russians would understand it as part of their heritage: certainly the poorer classes were constantly being coached and badgered against their own deeper feelings to acclaim the country’s rulers and their policies.
Part of this begins long before the finale: the struggle that has gone on with the first movement’s constantly shifting tempos always accelerating before breaking off into something almost static or perhaps only to start over again, as if one’s heartbeat is racing but then you catch your breath; the stark contrast of the brief scherzo; the agonizingly tragic lament of the slow movement; and then the rousing (or supposedly rousing) march of the final movement comes to a long drawn-out expansion of the march-tune which can be played in two ways. If you conduct it in 2 (two beats to the bar, conducting half-notes) , it is fast and triumphant sounding; if, however, you conduct it in 4 (four beats to the bar – quarter notes – but with each beat in the same tempo as the previous half-notes), it loses its drive and perhaps does sound mechanical and hollow. I have not seen the original manuscript in the composer’s handwriting to know if what some people have said is true, that there was a misprint in the published score and the composer “intended” it to be “in 4" or if the quartet-note got the beat, not the half-note, and my miniature score is so miniature, even a magnifying glass doesn’t clear it up.
Even before Volkov’s “Testimony” appeared, I’ve heard performances with the “expansive” ending: the recording Maxim Shostakovich conducted (recorded in 1977 and available on RCA) also takes the expansive ending.
Then too, there is the figure of Mahler who is one of the major influences on Shostakovich the symphonist, and in this case Mahler of the 3rd Symphony. Mahler’s finale is also not a “faster/louder” ending meant to get the audience to its feet. It is a grand, expansive slow movement lacking any sense of irony, but there are many similarities between Shostakovich’s and Mahler’s conclusions, that one in fact can end slow and loud and sound triumphant. To this, just add a touch of Soviet Socialist Realism – the police-persuaded peasants inherited from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Possible? [Hmmmm...]
A composer writes notes on a page, choosing pitches that create the right combination for what he wants to express in the melodies, harmonies, colors and rhythms of his creation. But it is the music “between the notes,” left to the performer, which the composer has no control over: once he is finished writing it and sends it off into the world, the music is at the mercy of first the performer and then the listener. The listener can only approach it after a performer interprets it and then walks away with something that could have little to do with what the composer had in mind.
Not to denigrate the musicianship of Eugene Ormandy or the Philadelphia Orchestra, but when the last series of Shostakovich symphonies were first recorded in the West, it was their recordings that introduced us to these dark and often difficult pieces – not technically difficult, but difficult to comprehend their “meaning” because so many of us were listening for something beyond the clarity of formal structure and so on. This is obviously music “about” something - two of them are collections of poems set to music - and I found these recordings lacking in something. As a naive 20-something, I dismissed the Late Shostakovich Symphonies as “boring.”
Then I heard the next batch of recordings to come out, conducted by the composer’s son, Maxim: now, I discovered, these were wholly different works, exciting and deep, thought-provoking and sometimes even just plain scary. The notes were the same: why was the music different?
Did Ormandy not “understand” these pieces? Or was I just more receptive to Maxim Shostakovich’s approach?
It could be a little of both, plus how I felt on that particular day, who knows... Remember my opening anecdote about the performance of the Hindemith, hearing the orchestra read through it and then, after being told it was supposed to be “spooky,” how suddenly everything changed?
There is another tradition that we in the West do not understand, and it is what is usually called “The Holy Fool.”
We think of the Village Idiot as a figure of ridicule but to the Russians, this person was closer to God and given a certain amount of respect and “distance,” allowing him to say things and get away with them that an ordinary person would, perhaps, be arrested for. Returning to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, one of the minor figures (to us) is The Simpleton, as he’s called – in Russian, this yurodivy – who appears in a few scenes lamenting the tears shed by the poor Russian people.
There is a scene that has often been cut from performances, at least in the past. Boris is now faced with open rebellion among the people who support a renegade monk posing as the reborn prince, Dmitri, the legitimate heir Boris is rumored to have killed so he could ascend the throne himself. Coming out of the cathedral, the tsar, dressed in robes and crown, is confronted by the Simpleton in his rags who’s had his last penny stolen by a bunch of rowdy children: “why don’t you have them killed,” he asks the Tsar, “like you had Dmitri killed?” One of the noblemen orders the fool arrested but Boris stops them and instead asks the fool to pray for him. “How can you pray,” the simpleton asks the tsar, “for the murderer of a child?”
It is a chilling scene and even in the West with our claims for Freedom of Speech, such an affront might not go without some retribution. Depending on how the scenes and episodes of this opera may be staged (they are individual tableaux, not a continuous drama), one can conclude the opera with Boris’ death (which makes sense in the West because, after all, the tsar is the star) or with the scene in the forest where the people, in open revolt, have captured some of the tsar’s supporters and, led by the False Dmitri, now march off to Moscow to bring down Boris’s government, leaving only the Simpleton on stage with his sing-song lament – tears, no matter what happens, only tears for the poor starving Russian people.
Ending the opera with Boris’ death is a powerful operatic story about a man overcome by fate; ending the opera with the Simpleton’s lament is a powerful emotional ending to a story about the people who, despite their impending victory, will continue to suffer regardless who’s in control.
Which do you think might resonate more with the Russian people themselves?
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Toward the end of his life, when Shostakovich was feeling old and in constant pain, he was reading Chekhov’s story, “Ward 6,” about a doctor who halfheartedly performs his duties at a squalid provincial hospital: “Dr. Ragin was a great believer in intelligence and honesty, but he lacked the strength of character and the confidence in his own right to assert himself in order to see to it that the life around him should be honest and intelligent. He simply did not know how to give orders, to prohibit, or to insist. It was almost as though he had taken a vow never to raise his voice....When deceived or flattered or handed a quite obviously fraudulent account for signature, he turned as red as a lobster and felt guilty, but he signed the account all the same.”
In a letter to his student Boris Tishchenko, written around the same time he was meeting with Volkov, Shostakovich wrote, “when I read in that story about Andrey Yefimovich Ragin, it seems to me I am reading memoirs about myself.”
Whether Volkov’s testimony is even partly accurate or may be more conjecture than “straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth” accuracy – given the furor over James Frey’s memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” a few years ago – there are more arguments now that it is a forgery. Since many of its quotes and ideas have already permeated the Shostakovich Legacy, it will be hard to filter what is fact from what may only be fiction.
But the point remains, the music is there: however we choose to interpret it, pointing out this background fact or that possible afterthought, the music is capable of speaking in different ways to different individuals, with or without these references.
I only point them out...
- Dick Strawser