It is the hundredth birthday of the Russian avante-garde/modernist composer Dimitri Shostakovich.
His work was always heroic, some say bombastic. It was played by the orchestra in
"An hour ago I finished the score for the two movements of a large symphonic composition.
If I succeed in bringing it off, that is if I manage to finish the third and the fourth movements, I'll be able to call the work the Seventh Symphony.
Why am I telling you this?
I am telling you this to show that life in our city is normal.
We are all at our battle stations.
Soviet musicians, my dear numberless comrades in arms, my friends!
Remember, our art is in peril. So let us defend our music, let us work honestly and selflessly!"
Dmitry Shostakovich, speaking in a
His work was critical of the Stalinist regime while a paen to the revolutionary struggles of 1905 and 1917. The hero in his music was not an individual but the people and their struggles. His music ironically spoke to the soul of the listener. His is the voice of the dialectic, the struggle of humanity is also the struggle of the individual. He remains a major Socialist voice in modern music.
He was trashed in the West during the Cold War as a Stalinist hack. Without regard for the rigours of trying to remain within that regime while existing with personal and musical integrity.
As in death, he was fated to be at the heart of controversy during his life. However, if, during the Thirties and Fifties, Shostakovich was subjected to so-called 'right-wing' criticism from official circles professing the most reactionary conservatism, today he often becomes the target of attacks from the 'left', either from those post-war avant-garde adepts who see him as a traditionalist, or from 'truth lovers' bitten by the bug of unmasking, who smirk at his imagined conformity. Today it is very easy to be more Catholic than the Pope. It is more difficult to find what can be called the historical ear -- something that anyone who has pretensions to the title of music historian or music theorist should actually possess. Naturally, it is naive to expect younger generations to be informed of the social experience of the previous generations, for they will never be able to bridge this gap. They hear and see the recent past differently from those who experienced it, and that is not in the least surprising. Nevertheless, those who study the art of the past ought at least to try to correlate it with what used to be social practice during that time. The lack, among the young, of personal knowledge of these matters can be compensated by the study of historical facts and, naturally, as far as possible, by their correct interpretation. Otherwise, distortions -- or, at the least, superficial judgements -- will become etched in stone. To restore the historical truth and take a fresh look at Shostakovich's work are endeavors that are equally imperative today.
Shostakovich was an artist with a complex and tragicfate. Persecuted for almost his entire life and almost sharing the fate of Meyerhold, Mandel'shtam, and [the writer Varlam] Shalamov, he courageously endured hounding and persecution for the sake of what was most important in his life: his art. Occasionally, however, during the most complex conditions of political repression, he had to manoeuver. Without this manoeuvering, there would have been no Shostakovich art at all. Many of those who had started with him perished, while many others were brought to their knees. He survived and persevered, endured everything and, in the end, fulfilled his calling. And we can only bow before his fortitude and steadfastness.
What is important is not only how he is perceived and listened to today, but also who he was for his contemporaries. For those who listened attentively to his strong voice, filled with anxiety and, at times, breaking with despair, Shostakovich became a crucial symbol of intellectual integrity. For many years his music remained a safety valve which, for a few short hours, allowed listeners to expand their chests and breathe freely. At the time, his music was that truly indispensable lungful of freedom and dissidence, not only in its content, but also -- which is no less important -- in its musical form. However, first and foremost, we were grateful to Shostakovich for the fact that during those precious minutes of communion with his music, we were free to remain ourselves -- or, perhaps, to revert to ourselves. The sound of Shostakovich's music was not only always a celebration of high art, but also an interlude of truth. Those who knew how to listen to his music would take it away with them from the concert hall. His music became an emblem of spiritual experience and of hope for the future. It can be said, without exaggerating, that Shostakovich was the authentic conscience of his time. I would suggest that it is our task to carry over that understanding of his work into the present and to instill it into the coming generations of musicians and listeners.
COMPOSITIONS by DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH Internet Edition compiled by Onno van Rijen
Listen to: Written With The Heart's Blood
The five parts of Quartet No. 8 depict significant moments -- both positive and negative -- in the composer's life. The piece is dominated by the repeated use of Shostakovich's musical "signature" of D, E flat, C, and B. This recurring motif both binds the piece together and gives it an oppressive, almost inescapable quality. In the second movement (Allegro Molto, featured here as arranged by Barshai for the New Century Chamber Orchestra), the relentless repetition conjures images of prison or endless pursuit: the strings race around each other with a manic urgency, swelling and spreading until they form a seemingly inescapable web. The piece's breathless, unsettling quality influenced both the work of Bernard Hermann, who composed the music for Psycho, and the band Faith No More, who sampled it in "Malpractice," on their 1992 album Angel Dust.
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