|Dmitri Shostakovich in 1938|
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Though it has nothing to do with Shostakovich, last week I was listening to a recording of Bruckner's 7th Symphony with its expansive final cadences, a brilliant, joyous affirmation of a tonic chord building into a soaring climax at the end of the 1st movement over a span of almost two minutes, which then comes back at the end of the 4th movement – the entire symphony is over an hour long – for another seemingly endless, soaring minute (a lot of time for basically one single, prolonged tonic resolution). This always leaves me in breathless exaltation, reminding me of one of the most life-affirming experiences I have ever had in a concert hall and invariably always takes me another minute to recoup myself after that.
At that moment, I realized it was time to return to reality. I shook myself and begrudgingly turned on the TV as the news began. “And from New Zealand, now, where a gunman killed 49 people at Evening Prayers...”
I realize this has nothing to do with Bruckner or his symphony of 1883, but it reminded me of the subjective power of music and its relevance to our own experiences. I'm also reminded of a question not just artists had to deal with after September 11th, 2001: how do you create art in violent times? How do you respond to such events? What is the value of art under circumstances like those we're experiencing more and more in a world it's easy to dismiss as “just going crazy”?
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the three quartets we'll hear on Sunday's concert with the Pacifica Quartet in 1938, 1946, and 1960. We can listen to them purely abstractly as meticulous examples of the “string quartet form” and the way the composer handled the various details inherent in writing a quartet with the baggage of Beethoven behind you, and we can listen to them by thinking “what a perky tune” or “that's a really heart-rending melody” or “I thought this was supposed to be a waltz?”
But I want to give you a little context as to what else was going on behind them, these intimate works intended for a small audience. We think of symphonies, written for large orchestras, played in large halls for large audiences, as “public works,” where the idea is to express something that appeals, especially in the context of Soviet politics, to the masses. Because Shostakovich is not just a Russian composer: he is a Soviet composer and the politics of his time required artists to write music that appealed to the ubiquitous People. The appropriate adjective is, therefore, “populist.”
In January of 1936, two years after its premiere, a performance of his latest opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was met with a – well, “scathing” does not begin to suggest the severity this review's impact would have on the young composer. It appeared after Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, attended a performance of this much touted new work but was so incensed by the music, he left before it was over. The essay, “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared in the official press and brought down official condemnation not just on his opera but also on his music in general. Even his Stalin-supporting colleagues now condemned his “anti-populist” leanings, distancing themselves from him to avoid any similar trouble of their own. Consequently, performances of his music were canceled; he was forced to withdraw the new 4th Symphony, already in rehearsal, because it would undoubtedly bring about more trouble. By April, 1937, he had started work on a new symphony, one that would become his 5th, and in the midst of writing it, the real political stuff hit the fan.
The man had been raked over the coals, disgraced by government officials and many of his friends, saw his promising career dissolve in an instant – he was only 29 – and then, once Stalin's “Great Purge” began, he saw friends and relatives of his called in by the Secret Police (the NKVD), some of whom disappeared into the night. Some were imprisoned; others, executed!
When he was finally called into the police station for an interview – this was on a Friday – he was told to come back on Monday. Friends advised him to pack a bag so he'd be ready in case they came to arrest him in the middle of the night (talk about “Fate knocking at the door”). But when he returned for his second interrogation on Monday, he found the previous officer interviewing him had, in the meantime, himself been arrested; so he was told to go home. And that, apparently, was that.
The 5th Symphony was, we are told, written as a way for Shostakovich to regain favor. Someone called it “a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism” and it stuck (those are not Shostakovich's own words on the score!). The new work was premiered in November, 1937. Six months later, on May 30th, 1938, he began something entirely new – his first-ever string quartet.
So there's the “back-story” for that one. And from here on out, through the rest of his career, Shostakovich would often turn to the string quartet and the introverted world of chamber music (usually regarded as more intellectual than the populist symphonies) which did not lend itself to performances in packed football stadiums.
Curiously, labeled by party ideologues with the derogatory term “formalist” – vaguely referring to the use of distinctly Germanic, abstract forms unrelated to the needs of The People who wish to be entertained – the very idea of writing a “string quartet” seems entirely “formalist.” What can be more “formal” that writing in a totally Teutonic genre that has no bearing on Russian folk culture or the interests of the Proletariat? Not only does he write a very classical – in itself “formalist” – work (in the sense of its clarity of structure and simplicity of textures), he even turns a delightfully folksy Russian dance into a fugue, perhaps the most “formalist,” Germanic thing possible! Is Shostakovich thumbing his musical nose at the Party (would they notice?) and would those in the audience who would be aware of this be smiling to themselves (“Dmitri, you sly dog...”)?
This historic recording of the 1st Quartet was made by the Borodin Quartet, an ensemble that worked closely with the composer during much of his career.
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Chronologically speaking, the next string quartet on the program was written in 1946. To most of us in the West that means the End of World War II, but in Russia, the war was a very different event than it was to Americans whose cities were not bombed and whose countryside was not ravaged by invading troops. In this horrific occupation by the Nazis, the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad were just two of the most horrific events. Shostakovich had been in Leningrad when the siege began in June, 1941, the start of the almost-900-day-long siege in which well over a million people would die, and he began working on his epic 7th Symphony (known as “The Leningrad Symphony”), incredibly premiered in the midst of the siege when people in the audience and on the stage were starving and feared being killed in the regular bombardments. When the government was able to evacuate the composer and his family from an airfield surrounded by German artillery the night of October 1st, and his three-year-old son, Maxim, seeing the flashes of gun-fire, asked “What are those?” his father explained “those are the Germans – they're trying to shoot down our plane.”
|Shostakovich & Son, mid-1940s|
Things seemed to be going well for him, compared to the mid-'30s: in 1946, he won the coveted Stalin Prize for the Piano Trio, the 8th Symphony was also being received with great acclaim, the famous photo of him standing atop a Leningrad building with a fire hose during the siege had turned him into an international symbol of resistance against the Nazis and he found himself in the unlikely role of hero. In the spring of 1946, even Stalin himself, now, gave the composer money, the larger apartment his family needed, and the use of a summer dacha (or country house). In this atmosphere, Shostakovich wrote his 3rd Quartet, looking back on the past few years, this time through the miniaturized world of chamber music.
(In most photographs, Shostakovich is always very serious, often frowning. In this one (see above), taken during one of these mid-1940s summers, it is nice to see him being a dad, playing football with his son, Maxim.)
In this live performance, the Borodin Quartet, again, plays the String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73:
It's in five movements: an Allegretto in Sonata form (sneaking a good deal of Western, "formalist" counterpoint into the development section), with a moderately-paced dance-like scherzo followed by a more violent (dissonant), faster march-like scherzo complete with some "military mockery" and canonic imitation (canons, not cannons). The fourth movement is a combination passacaglia (an old German Baroque form) and heart-rending funeral march that eventually blends into the tragic finale with, however, its benedictory conclusion.
But even before Shostakovich had completed this work, something new was afoot. Attacks in the press on writers had begun in 1946, soon followed by ones against artists in the cinema and the theater. Unlike the indiscriminate political purges of the 1930's against those disagreeing with Stalin and his policies, these specifically targeted scientists and, later, artists, the sole purpose being to instill ideological uniformity on Soviet intellectuals in the increasingly bitter climate of the post-war tensions with the West which we know as “The Cold War.” Shostakovich's 8th Symphony, though well-received by the public, did not meet with official approval. His impending 9th Symphony – considering Beethoven's association with a 9th Symphony – was long rumored to be a post-war celebration of the Soviet Victory (typical of Russian wars, merely surviving was considered a victory) complete with a vast choral finale praising Lenin or Stalin (or both). When it turned out to be a slight, rather Haydn-esque and entirely too quirky classical symphony, public reaction was “confused” and official recognition was negative. It was decided the new 3rd Quartet, which in the light of these circumstances would not meet with governmental favor, should be withdrawn from public performance.
|Zhdanov & Stalin|
At their summer dacha, patriotic neighbors set up loudspeakers in their back yard to blast pro-Soviet propaganda programs at Shostakovich's house so he was unable to compose. Sometimes, Maxim would climb up a tree with an improvised catapult and shoot stones at the speakers which might give his father a few hours' respite before the neighbors returned home and fixed them.
But unlike the Artist of 1936, this time the Artist of 1948 (who was only in his early-40s) retired. He did not stop composing, but he stopped publishing his music. Private performances at the homes of friends continued – almost as if he'd gone “underground” – but it was not an easy life. In the midst of the 1st Violin Concerto when news of Zhdanov's decree reached him, he finished it and put it aside in a drawer except for the occasional officially sanctioned “propaganda piece” like the cantata “Song of the Forests,” glorifying Stalin's reforestation policies in 1949 or a film score here and there to earn some money. He became, officially, a “party hack” as he was viewed in the West, but he did not publish his “private music.” Presumably, he began his 10th Symphony, perhaps several times. Friends reported he was on the verge of suicide. When he decided he would begin composing again (“so as not to lose my credentials as a composer”), oddly the first thing he began writing after this attack on his pro-Western influences was a set of Preludes & Fugues for piano in the manner of Bach – once again, what can be more German, more “formal,” more intellectual than a fugue?
Shostakovich decided to wait. And when Stalin died suddenly on March 5th, 1953 – Prokofiev died the same day – he waited for the thaw. His 10th Symphony was supposedly completed (if not already completed) by October, complete with its final victory dance based on his musical signature, the motive "DSCH." It was premiered to great acclaim that December. But as the political struggle following Stalin's death unfolded, bringing Krushchev to power (Peter Sirotin joked with me once that, in Russia, the idea of a peaceful transition in government “is being smothered by a pillow in the back-room of a palace”), things were not immediately all roses and cupcakes.
|Shostakovich in 1959|
We tend to think, if you were a Soviet citizen, Comrade Shostakovich would've automatically been a card-carrying Communist. It strikes us as a bit like having an agnostic appointed Composer-in-Residence for the Catholic Church.
Later, Lev Lebedinksy, a friend and frequent visitor to Shostakovich's apartment in these days, wrote:
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“...over the years, [Shostakovich] assumed a mask, and played the role of an obedient Party member. ...His writings often contradicted what he said, and, even worse, his actions contradicted what he had written. ...The most tragic example of his neurotic behavior was his joining the Communist Party in 1960, which he hated and despised. It's hard to tell what made him join, although he had been under much official pressure for some time. He didn't tell his family and friends that he had made the application for membership; we only found out when we received the official Party circular in the post.”
“...I will never forget some of the things he said that night [in June, 1960], sobbing hysterically. 'I am scared to death of them.' 'You don't know the whole truth.' ...'I'm a wretched alcoholic.' 'I've been a whore, I am and always be a whore.'
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The 7th Quartet had been completed in March of 1960, around the time all this was boiling up around him. It is generally considered a “highly personal work,” ostensibly inspired by the impact on him of the death of his first wife, Nina, following a sudden diagnosis of cancer, in December, 1954. This is partly reflected in his choice of key – F-sharp Minor, the traditional tonality in Bach's day for “pain and suffering” (as when Peter cries out his remorse in Bach's “St. John” Passion) – and it is no accident the premiere was in May of 1960: he and Nina became engaged in May, 1929; they married in May, 1932; both their children where born in May, two years apart. It is a compact and often contradictory work. The first movement is “perky, agitated, but full of impish humour; the second dream-like; while the third, although at first violent, finally relapses into mellow contemplation.”
Here, the Borodin Quartet plays Shostakovich's Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108 as part of a 1982 film documentary (for some reason, a small part of the third movement is cut, here):
But place the quartet in the context of his emotional state – it is, after all, five years after his wife's death, he wrote his 6th Quartet in 1956, and had already re-married – and realize also the more famous and famously autobiographical 8th Quartet with its “DSCH” Motive and collage of quotes from several of his own works, including an old song, “Tormented by the Weight of Bondage,” a funeral anthem that became a favorite of Lenin's during the Revolution: rather than acknowledge the psychological implications of this “bondage,” critics said Shostakovich paid homage to Lenin by quoting his favorite song. It was written at white heat in three days in July, 1960, just four months after the 7th. In talking about it, he said that when he died, no one would write something in his memory, so he thought he would do it himself. Shortly afterward, his friend Lebedinsky said he sat up with Shostakovich through the night: once again, he was on the verge of suicide.
Here is the Pacifica Quartet from a 2014 "Tiny Desk Concert" recorded for NPR where they play the opening Allegretto of the 7th Quartet, the opening of the 3rd Quartet - and then the brusque 2nd movement of the 8th Quartet:
Now, listening to the music may be one thing but knowing the “biographical background” of these three quartets may add another dimension to them, a deeper layer of understanding: does this affect the way you respond to them?
- Dick Strawser