Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shostakovich & The Life Behind Three Quartets

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1938
This is the second post about Sunday's All-Shostakovich Program with the Pacifica Quartet on March 24th, at 4:00 at Harrisburg's Market Square Church. Truman Bullard will be presenting the pre-concert talk at 3:15. For more about the program, check the first post here, where you can hear excerpts from their recording of the Complete Shostakovich Quartets.
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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
After the 7th Symphony was completed and performed to international acclaim, he spent fairly idyllic summers between 1943 and 1946 at a Composer's Retreat in rural Ivanovo where he wrote, among other things, his 8th and 9th Symphonies, the E Minor Piano Trio and the 2nd String Quartet. On August 2nd, 1946, then, he completed his 3rd Quartet there as well.

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
Then, in January 1948, came the other shoe: Stalin's lap-dog for all things cultural, Andrei Zhdanov – who considered contemporary music “the equivalent of a piercing road drill or a musical gas chamber” – singled out Shostakovich and Prokofiev for especially harsh “criticism,” along with a handful of other modernists. There was a public disgrace, accusations of pro-Western “formalism” (the writing of things like symphonies and string quartets), elitism and intellectualism as opposed to good old-fashioned populist works of “Soviet Realism.” He was stripped of his teaching posts, his works were forbidden to be performed – and of course no one would dare commission anything new from him – so he lost his sources of income as well as his artistic reason-for-being. He was forced to apologize in public, along with his fellow victims, and he feared (once again) being arrested in the middle of the night.

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
Incidentally, Boris Pasternak began writing his novel Doctor Zhivago around the same time Shostakovich composed his 3rd Quartet. The novel would be banned in the Soviet Union, finally smuggled out and published in the West where it won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, causing all manner of political trouble for the author and his family back home. Krushchev initiated another attack on artists, pressuring them – even the seemingly rehabilitated Shostakovich – into toeing the party line, a form of artistic coercion that resulted in two big “revolutionary” symphonies – Nos. 11 and 12 – and, in 1960, his application to officially join the Communist Party. He thought it would make him "untouchable" and give his family some security.

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Pacifica & Three Shostakovich Quartets (Part 1)

The Pacifica Quartet
Who: The Pacifica String Quartet
What: playing three quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich
When: Sunday at 4:00 (with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk at 3:15)
Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg (parking in the Market Square Garage on 2nd Street above Chestnut & the Harrisburg Hospital)
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The Pacifica Quartet, formed in 1994, is celebrating 25 seasons of music-making this year. When I first heard them in the late '90s, I had high hopes for this exciting new young group – not only were they very good in the “standard repertoire,” they also championed composers like Elliott Carter (one of my favorites). In fact, they played Carter's 1st Quartet at their first appearance here, years ago; and the last time I'd seen them live, they were playing all five Carter quartets for the composer just before his 100th birthday! It's not that they are “Modern Music Specialists,” because anything they play is an experience, not just another performance, whether it's hearing their complete Beethoven Cycle or listening to their recordings of the complete Shostakovich Cycle.

And here they are, back again with a concert Peter Sirotin put together with them of three of his favorite Shostakovich quartets.

Now, if you go to chamber music concerts long enough, you will probably hear a few of the Great Quartets of the Day, those legendary names spoken with a sense of awe by us old-timers, and a number of Young Up-and-Coming Quartets who appear and, all too frequently, disappear with great regularity. So, by the time the Great Quartets decide to hang up their bows, some of those Young Up-and-Coming Quartets have been around long enough to be well on their way to becoming the Great Quartets of the Future. At the same time, we continue to experience a number of newer Young Up-and-Coming Quartets who may, with any luck, somewhere down the line become the Great Quartets to the Next Generation.

It's the Classical Music “Cycle of Life.”

Here's a 2018 performance of the quartet playing one of Beethoven's catchier scherzos, from his Op. 18, No. 6:

Speaking of "Cycle of Life," here's another example: years ago, I attended an “out-reach” event presented by Odin Rathnam, former concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony and a founder of the chamber orchestra Concertante, which featured a young high-school-aged quartet he'd been coaching. In order to reach a lot of not-your-usual-concert-goers, it was held in Strawberry Square, right in front of the noisiest clock in the world. And lots of people heard them, stopped, and paid attention. They were playing one of the Biggest Adult Quartets in the repertoire, the G Major Quartet of Franz Schubert, an intensely mature work for so young a composer. But what was amazing to me was, these students couldn't possibly have learned to play it with that same kind of intense maturity simply from hearing a recording. That level of interpretation is the sort of insight quartets twice their age – even more – would be lucky to have.

The first violinist of this quartet was a young guy named Austin Hartman who grew up in Lancaster, close enough to Harrisburg to be considered a “home-town boy.” Later, I heard he had gone on to college where he founded his own quartet, the Biava Quartet.

Today, he is the second violinist of the Pacifica Quartet.

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Shostakovich, who achieved fame as a teen-ager with his 1st Symphony, wrote 15 string quartets during his life, one less than Beethoven. But unlike Beethoven, Shostakovich's quartets do not span his entire career; nor are they as easily subdivided into groups labeled “early,” “middle,” and “late.” To talk about his “early quartets,” looking at the numbers, is not the same as talking about Beethoven's Early Quartets, the Op. 18 set.

Given the three quartets the Pacifica will be playing on this program, I'm going to discuss them in chronological order, giving you samples from the Pacifica's recordings on the Çedille label, courtesy of the ubiquitous YouTube, and then, in the next post, go into more historical background for each of them to prepare you for a different way of approaching these works and the times in the composer's life they were written.

As a sample, here's the last movement of the very first string quartet Shostakovich published: while it might make you think “early/young,” it's a mature work, started in May of 1938 when he was 31. Shostakovich admitted he had not consciously thought of writing a quartet when he sat down to start a kind of theory exercise or “composer's etude,” a bit like other people sitting down to do a crossword puzzle. (Quite different from the preparation and anguish Beethoven, who was himself almost 30 when he released his first quartets, was going through, given the sound of his teacher Haydn marching on behind him.)

But Shostakovich liked how it evolved and by mid-July, it was finished. Thinking people would compare its four brief movements to his recent 5th Symphony (see next post), he wrote “Don't expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.”

While the history of the quartet, overshadowed by the likes of Beethoven, may be far removed from this rather slight work, it is not a “young composer trying to figure out how to write a string quartet in the shadow of Beethoven.” If anything, it's a maturing composer who's figured out how to write a string quartet despite Beethoven, and still, in this last movement, have a great deal of fun with a folksy tune which he turns into – gasp! – a fugue! Not a Great One, admittedly, but fugal nonetheless.

The 2nd and 3rd Quartets are Shostakovich's longest quartets out of the 15, the 2nd written during the summer of 1944, and the 3rd two years later. The 3rd, perhaps his most "symphonic" quartet in scope, is in five movements but not the symmetrical arch-form that Bartók used. He initially described it as a “War Quartet,” following on the heels of his two epic “War Symphonies,” the 7th and 8th and what the public was anticipating in his soon-to-be-announced 9th (see next post). In fact, he originally inscribed the movements with subtitles – "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm"; "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"; "The forces of war are unleashed"; "Homage to the dead"; and "The eternal question: why and to what purpose?" – before he decided these were perhaps inadequate for the music and, without further explanation, withdrew them. While the work opens with an almost pastoral innocence, the tension and introspection builds through the middle movements until the climactic Passacaglia of the 4th Movement – a favorite form of Shostakovich's where he can build the intensity through the theme's constant repetitions – and then breaks into a last movement that ends with 'mysterious transformation into eternal light and conciliation.'

Later, the composer wrote, “Life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious will disappear. All that is beautiful will triumph.”

This is the final movement of Shostakovich's 3rd Quartet from the Pacifica's recording, released in 2014:

Shostakovich would later consider this one of his greatest works. Years after the premiere, a member of the Beethoven Quartet (the Russian ensemble who played the premieres of most of Shostakovich's quartets), wrote:
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“Only once did we see Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. We were rehearsing his Third Quartet. He'd promised to stop us when he had any remarks to make. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat in an armchair with the score opened out. But after each movement ended he just waved us on, saying, 'Keep playing!' So we performed the whole quartet. When we finished playing he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face. This was the only time that I saw Shostakovich so open and defenseless.”
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The 7th Quartet – which opens the concert – is the shortest of the 15 and is in only three interconnected movements. Written in 1960, it ostensibly began as a memorial tribute to his wife, Nina, an unexpected event that deeply affected him (see the next post). Full of contradictory moods, and remote from any idea of a mournful eulogy, the first movement is “primarily perky, agitated, but full of impish humor; the second dream-like; while the third, although at first violent – “we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog” – finally relapses into mellow contemplation.”

But if you listen to this music, there is clearly something else going on behind it. But what? Unless the composer specifically said "this means that and I was thinking of this when I wrote it," we really only have our own subjective reactions to it - and the events of the composer's life. Do they explain the music? Or is he composing against the events, a way of escaping the reality? Or is there some secret that becomes a cathartic release for him but which we, as mere listeners, do not need (and sometimes are not allowed) to know?

In the next post, Shostakovich: the Life Behind Three Quartets, you can hear complete performances of each quartet by the legendary Borodin Quartet who had worked with the composer on most of his quartets throughout his career, plus some biographical information about the composer at the time he was writing them which will give you some context for the reality behind this music.

- Dick Strawser

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(photo credit for Pacifica Quartet photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)