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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Shostakovich was born 108 years ago today: some quotes and history

I always try to make myself as widely understood as possible; and if I don't succeed, I consider it my own fault.
~Dmitri Shostakovich (quoted in Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music)

The composer apparently does not set himself the task of listening to the desires and expectations of the Soviet public. He scrambles sounds to make them interesting to formalist elements who have lost all taste... The power of good music to affect 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.*
~Pravda (on the Shostakovich opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, "Muddle Instead of Music," January 1936)

Still from a production of
 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Shostakovich told me: "I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo... It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I finished it pianissimo and in the minor." Only later did I understand the full significance of these words, when I heard the Fourth Symphony, which does finish in the minor and pianissimo. But in 1937, nobody knew the Fourth Symphony.**
~Boris Khaikin (1904-1978) (Discourses on Conducting)

There may be few notes, but there's lots of music.
~Shostakovich (on his film music for King Lear; quoted in Wilson, Shostakovich, A Life Remembered)

Particularly during the Cold War, Shostakovich was anathema to many Western critics:

The Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich always has been singularly irritating to this chronicler... Whenever I hear one of his marches, my imagination fastens upon a picture of the parades in Red Square and the banners of Uncle Joe, and my irritation becomes powerful.
- Cyrus Durgin (? - 1962) (Boston Globe, 25 October 1952)

To anyone who knew his music, a first encounter with Dmitri Shostakovich could not fail to be startling. In contrast to the elemental force, bombast, grandeur of his works, he was a chétif*** figure, the perennial student, unassertive and shy, who looked as though all the music could be wrung out of him in a couple of song cycles.
~Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) (Unfinished Journey)

Today is the 108th anniversary of the birth of the greatest of Soviet composers, Dmitri Shostakovich (wiki) (1906-1975), recognized by many as the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. Three decades after his death, his reputation only continues to grow. Born in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich was an early piano prodigy and studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory during the early Soviet era. At first recognized internationally as an exemplar of the best of Soviet musicianship, he ran afoul of the regime with his modernistic opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, which so outraged Stalin that he is said to have had a personal hand in writing the infamous Pravda editorial, "Muddle Instead of Music" that literally put the composer's life in jeopardy during the "Great Purge" of the late 1930s. Shostakovich somehow survived, even though he was recurrently criticized by the regime for his “modernist” tendencies. During his subsequent tumultuous career, he produced an enormous oeuvre: 15 symphonies, concertos, a great quantity of chamber music, song cycles, piano music, and several operas. Generally considered a serious - almost tragic - composer, Shostakovich nonetheless wrote a large amount of “light” music, including even a stage work – Moscow Cheryomushki (1959) – that might be described as a Russian musical comedy.

Harry Potter looks exactly like
 a young Shostakovich
For newcomers to the music of Shostakovich, I would recommend his 4th, 5th, and 10th symphonies, the two piano concertos, the "autobiographical" 8th strinq quartet, his several "jazz" and "ballet" suites compiled from light works of the 1930s, and his film score for The Gadfly, whose "Romance" was used to great effect as the principal theme of the TV series, "Riley, Ace of Spies."

During the last two decades, there has been a raging musicological debate about whether the music of Shostakovich reveals him as a loyal Soviet citizen or a closet dissident whose works portray a tormented man. No one really knows. He was clearly a quirky guy. In contradiction to the opening quotation above, he noted late in life,

"I've said what I said. Either you have it in you to understand, or if not, then it would be fruitless to try to explain anyway."

* N.B. In the first year of the Great Purge, this last sentence was a terrifying threat.

** After the uproar caused by Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich "redeemed" himself with his Fifth Symphony (1937), designated "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism," still one of his most successful and popular works. However, his iconoclastic Fourth Symphony, which had been in rehearsal at the time of the debacle, was withdrawn and did not emerge again until 1961. It is now considered one of the master's most original works and a fascinating indicator of "the road not taken." By the way, Boris Khaikin was a Soviet-Jewish conductor.

*** Chétif - a French word meaning "puny."

Here is the romance from The Gadfly, accompanying a selection of photos:


More typical of Shostakovich is the opening of his 4th symphony:



The above is based on Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email.  If you'd like to be added to his list, leave your email address in the comments.

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