function get_footer() { echo "test"; } September 19, 2006

Published on Tuesdays



A Guide to the
Bay Area's Classical
Music Scene
Sept. 19 – Oct. 2

By Lisa Hirsch, Mickey Butts,
Scott MacClelland,
Jeff Dunn, Mary VanClay,
and Heuwell Tircuit



» A Long Parting of the
Ways at S.F. Opera ...
» New York Gushes
Over MTT
» The Sights and Sounds of SFS in Lucerne ...
» $20 Million for Artists ...
» Ivo Pogorelich:
Lost and Found ...

And More

By Janos Gereben



A Refined Art

By Michael Zwiebach

Suzhou Kun Opera
Theatre of Jiangsu
The Peony Pavilion
September 15 and 17, 2006


The Benefits of Familiarity

By Michael Zwiebach

San Francisco Lyric Opera
Il trovatore
September 16, 2006


Vocal Ravishment

By Heuwell Tircuit

Nuccia Focile
Berkeley Symphony
Robert Cole
September 17, 2006


A Chorus for Any Composer

By Anna Carol Dudley

September 17, 2006


Room for Improvement

By Scott MacClelland

Opera San José
Roméo et Juliette
September 10, 2006


Echoes of Time

By Mark Alburger

UC Berkeley Center for New Music and Audio Technology
"New Music in an Old Cathedral"
September 15, 2006


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Shostakovich at His Centenary

By David Bratman

It's Dmitri Shostakovich's birth centenary on Monday, Sept. 25, and the musical world has been taking notice. San Francisco Performances is giving a two-day festival of his chamber music to mark the occasion. The Alexander and Emerson quartets (among others) regularly perform cycles of all 15 of his string quartets, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony have played all 15 of his symphonies, and his music regularly turns up everywhere, even in Fantasia 2000. For those who set store by such markers, he's a serious candidate for the greatest or most significant composer of the 20th century, along with Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. (The Three S's, anyone?)

Fifty or 60 years ago, in the midst of Shostakovich's career, no one in the West would have believed it. Most critics viewed this Russian as a once-promising composer who'd sold his birthright for a pot of message. He had first come to notice in 1925 with his cheeky First Symphony, and for the next decade he composed increasingly wild, experimental, even protoaleatoric works. But then, after Pravda condemned his luridly expressionist opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, something happened to Shostakovich. He began toeing the Soviet line, both in his public pronouncements of fealty to Stalin's principle of "useful music for the proletariat" and in the music itself, which became sober, conservative, and lighter in intellectual heft. And he began showing what most critics thought were odd lapses of taste.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich also became popular with the Western public, for a while. This reached almost absurd heights with the release of his "Leningrad" Symphony in 1942. He had written most of the work in his native city, under siege by the German army, while living on short rations and serving as a fire-watcher. Then he was secretly evacuated to a safe location behind the lines, and the Soviet government microfilmed the finished score and flew it out of the country via Iran. The exciting story caught the public's attention, and the composer appeared on the cover of Time in his fireman's helmet. The public tussle for the honor of conducting the American premiere was won by Arturo Toscanini (who'd not previously shown much interest in Shostakovich) over Leopold Stokowski and Artur Rodzinski (who had).

The music under critique

But then people listened to the music. It was hard to avoid for a while: Over the next couple of years, the symphony received dozens of performances, more as a mark of U.S.-Soviet wartime solidarity than from admiration of the work. The "Leningrad" was another somber, conservative symphony like its immediate predecessors. Of Mahlerian length — about 70 minutes — it seemed to many ears to be overlong for its content. The most memorable part was one of those lapses of taste. In place of a development, the first movement has a jaunty tune, resembling something from a Lehár operetta, played over and over without change except for becoming louder, brasher, and more hideous, after the manner of Ravel's Bolero. This supposedly represented the invading Germans.

Critics didn't know what to make of it, and the "Leningrad" got bad notices from major reviewers. They make amusing reading today, now that the work has been rehabilitated. Virgil Thomson declared that since Shostakovich was "willing to write down to a real or fictitious psychology of mass consumption," this "may eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer." B.H. Haggin piled on adjective after adjective: "pretentious ... feeble, inane, banal ... unresourceful, crude, blatant." Olin Downes predicted that "posterity will consign the piece to the wastepaper basket."

In the short run, Downes was right. As the Cold War began, the "Leningrad" virtually disappeared from the Western repertoire for decades. For years, the only available recording was an abridged version, and the only bit of it likely to be played in concert was a brief parody of the jaunty tune that an irritated Béla Bart—k — tired of hearing the work on the radio in its heyday — had dropped into his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943.

Shostakovich's name was not forgotten, but his music sank from general notice. A few works — the Fifth Symphony, the First Piano Concerto — were performed regularly, but the increasingly serialist academy held him in contempt as a tonalist, a technically simplistic composer, and a Soviet lackey. Few people noticed the striking body of chamber music, especially string quartets, that occupied more of his output in the 1950s and '60s. American musicologist Richard Taruskin, taught in his theory classes to sneer at Shostakovich, visited Russia in 1971 and found that the musical community there, though no less sophisticated than himself, revered Shostakovich, both the music and the man. He didn't know what to make of it.

Asking the questions

What no one in the West — even fervent anticommunists — seemed ready to ask for the longest time was: How does a creative artist maintain his integrity under a totalitarian regime whose reign of terror extends to the arts? Shostakovich said that he was a loyal Soviet and that his music was written for the glory of the state, and everyone believed him. We should have wondered after his "Babi Yar" Symphony — a song cycle on caustic poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko — was suppressed by the Soviet government. Its history was almost as exciting as that of the "Leningrad": The score was smuggled out of the country by Mstislav Rostropovich, and the work was given a dramatic American premiere in 1969 by Eugene Ormandy. And indeed, the composer's reputation began to rise a little around that time. His death in 1975 at the age of 68 was widely mourned and made newspaper headlines even in the U.S.

The person who asked the serious questions, and who transformed Western appreciation of Shostakovich, was a Soviet music journalist named Solomon Volkov. He'd known Shostakovich in his last years, and he arrived in New York soon after the composer's death with what he said was a typescript of Shostakovich's memoirs. The Russian original was never published, but it appeared in English translation in 1979 under the title Testimony.

Solomon Volkov
Photo (c) 2003 Marianna Volkov

It was a startling book. The narrator of Testimony was a sour, embittered man, furious at the Soviet government for suppressing his voice and out to wreak any secret revenge that he could get away with. He became what he called a yurodivy, a secret clown in the Russian tradition who poked fun at the authorities without their knowing it. It was a tricky job, for if the government suspected it was being criticized, it could have him exiled to Siberia, secretly imprisoned, even executed — and all these fates did happen to creative artists, even to some of Shostakovich's friends. It was all the trickier because the Russian people, the narrator said, found his posture perfectly obvious. "You'd have to be a complete oaf not to hear that," the narrator often declared scornfully.

A change of tune

Now we noticed. Testimony overturned all previous understandings of Shostakovich's music. The banalities in his populist works — those were a frightened man grinning and bowing before the authorities, hoping they'd look on him with favor. The empty spaces in his more serious music were the cries of anguish of an artist unable to say what was on his mind. The operetta tune in the "Leningrad" — that wasn't a dig at the Germans, but at Soviet unpreparedness. The searing horror and mournful funeral in his Eleventh Symphony of 1957 weren't a reminiscence of the 1905 Winter Palace massacre, as the subtitle said, but a protest against the previous year's invasion of Hungary. The D-S-C-H initialism motto speckled through many of his works of the 1950s (D-E flat-C-B natural in German notation, based on D. Schostakowitsch, the German transliteration of his name) was a coded way of saying, "Here is the real me."

No work of Shostakovich's is a better test of Testimony's reevaluations than his Fifth Symphony in D Minor. This was the 1937 work that — or so he said at the time — he offered as rehabilitation after the excesses of Lady Macbeth. The Fifth has always been one of Shostakovich's most popular symphonies. The first and third movements are slow and quiet but rise in the middle to shatteringly intense climaxes; the second movement scherzo is brisk and vehement. The finale, however, is a problem. It's in a triumphant D Major, concluding with a thundering tonic-dominant tattoo on the timpani. But there's a strident hollowness to it all that seems disconcerting, and a disturbingly dark undercurrent that comes to the fore in a quiet, almost blindly wandering middle section that the official reading never tried to explain.

Shostakovich didn't invent the difficulty of creating a successful major-mode ending to a symphony in the minor. It's plagued composers since Beethoven. There's a reason why Beethoven's Fifth concludes with an endless stamping insistence on C Major. And there are people — I'm one of them — who admire the first three movements of Beethoven's Ninth but would rather skip the "Ode to Joy."

Before Testimony, the most generous Western verdict on Shostakovich's Fifth was rather like my view of Beethoven's Ninth: "The first three movements are fine. Too bad about the finale." But the narrator of Testimony, in his most famous passage, said that the falsity was intentional. "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. ... 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?"

Most listeners were convinced by Testimony's view of what enthusiastic critic Ian MacDonald called "the new Shostakovich." And they were supported by the word of Soviet émigrés such as Rostropovich and Shostakovich's own son, conductor Maxim Shostakovich. They confirmed that the book represented his political opinions (though their doubts of the work's authenticity and their criticisms of its inaccuracies were less often reported). Others endorsed Testimony wholeheartedly, and the trickle increased after the USSR fell. Without specifically endorsing Volkov, whom most of them had hardly known, Shostakovich's friends and other Soviet creative artists said of Testimony's depiction, "Yes, this is what it was like to live under that regime."

Shostakovich was suddenly transformed from a Soviet lackey into a secret hero, and his music — all the way from the modernist works of the 1920s to the Festive Overture (which sounds more like faked rejoicing than anything in the Fifth Symphony does), and from the chipper, popsy Jazz Suites to the suicidally dark and morose Eighth and Fifteenth Quartets — has become a mainstay of the musical repertoire from the last century. Olin Downes may be rolling in his grave, but even the "Leningrad" Symphony has returned to the concert hall, praised as a vivid depiction of the experience of being oppressed by your own government and assaulted by a foreign enemy at the same time.

There was only one problem: Did Shostakovich actually write Testimony?

(To be continued next week ...)

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)


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©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved.


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