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Category: Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich – “Symphony No 4” in C minor, opus 43

portrait-of-joseph-stalin-iosif-vissarionovich-dzhugashvili-1936.jpg!Large

   “Portrait of Joseph Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) (1936)

                   Pavel Filonov

                           _________

if you’ve been waiting for a Shostakovich 
to write home about among his early 
symphonies, here’s the one, his 
Symphony no 4 in C minor, opus 43 will
knock your socks off from its very 
opening gambit, have a seat, settle in, 
and get ready for an explosive hour

the Fourth was written in 1936, some 
years after the death of Lenin, and the 
instalment of Stalin as the supreme, 
and ruthless, authority, after several 
years throughout the Twenties of
maneuvering himself, cold-bloodedly,
into that position 

from Stalin, Death is the solution to 
all problems. No man – no problem.

fearing retribution after Stalin had 
criticized his recent opera, Lady 
Macbeth of Mtsensk“, Shostakovich 
cancelled the first performance of 
this new work, due to take place in 
December, ’36, others had already 
suffered internal exile or execution 
who had displeased the tyrant, a 
prelude to the infamous Great Terror

the Symphony was eventually played
in 1961, 25 years later, conducted by
no less than Kirill Kondrashin, who’d
partnered Van Cliburn a few years 
earlier in Cliburn’s conquest of Russia
but along with this time however the 
long-lived Leningrad Philharmonic 
Orchestra 

to a friend, I said, this is the biggest
thing since verily Beethoven, no one 
has so blown me away symphonically 
since then

he looked forward, he replied, to 
hearing it 

the Fourth Symphony has three distinct 
movements, to fit thus appropriately the 
definition of symphony, though the first 
and third have more than one section, 
something Shostakovich would have 
learned from already Beethoven, it gives 
the opportunity of experiencing a variety 
of emotions within one uninterrupted 
context, add several movements and 
you have a poignant, peripatetic musical 
journey, more intricate, psychologically 
complex, than many other even eminent
composers, Schubert, Chopin, 
Mendelssohn, even Brahms, for instance 

it’s helpful to think of film scores, and 
their multiple narrative incidents,
brimming with impassioned moments,   
however disparate, Shostakovich had 
already written several of them

let me point out that Shostakovich’s 
rhythms are entirely Classical, even 
folkloric in their essential aspects, 
everywhere sounds like a march, 
proud and bombastic, if not a 
veritable dance, peasants carousing,
courtiers waltzing, and repetition is
sufficiently present to not not 
recognize the essential music 
according to our most elementary
preconceptions

but the dissonances clash, as though 
somewhere the tune, despite its rigid 
rhythms, falls apart in execution, as 
though the participants had, I think,  
broken limbs, despite the indomitable 
Russian spirit

this is what Shostakovich is all about, 
you’ll hear him as we move along 
objecting, however surreptitiously,
cautiously, to the Soviet system, like 
Pasternak, like Solzhenitsyn, without 
ever, like them, leaving his country 
despite its manifest oppression, and 
despite the lure of Western accolades,
Nobel prizes, for instance, it was their 
home

and there is so much more to tell, but
first of all, listen

R ! chard 

  

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Symphony No.3 ‘The First of May’ in Eb major op. 20

the-1st-may-demonstration-on-the-red-square-at-1929-1930.jpg!Large

   “The 1st May Demonstration on The Red Square, 1929 (1930) 

            Konstantin Yuon

__________

let me correct something I wrote in my 
last comment, inadvertently, misleading
you somewhat with my inappropriate 
use of the word “movement”, that the
Symphony no 2 had only one, I stated, 
by which I meant that there were no 
pauses throughout, there are, however, 
indeed four movements in the Second
four distinct sections that have been 
joined together, such an uninterrupted 
piece would usually have been given 
an appropriate title, or an opus number, 
to identify it, but would not have been 
called a symphony, a symphony is by  
very definition a clearly segmented 
composition, like chapters in a book, 
they might follow a theme, though not
necessarily, see Mozart, but the breaks
are integral, where you get a chance to
cough, or to get up and replenish your 
glass of wine 

the Second could have been, should 
have been, called simply, October“, 
and, ergo, left at that 

but it wasn’t

the very same must be said about the
Third Symphony, “The First of May”,
you can already probably hear the 
jubilation and fanfare in just the title,
another milestone of the Revolution, 
the anniversary of Lenin’s death, the 
final chorus sings a lyric of a poet of
the Revolution, Semyon Kirsanov, a
sure nod to the symphony‘s political, 
however peripheral, intent 

what you’ll note, however, is the 
sensuality of the music, above
whatever weight of a, perhaps 
more fitting, dirge, or the bombast 
even of a commemorative, an exalting 
tribute – though these are determinedly 
there – going back to the orchestral 
triumphs of the Romantic Era, with 
its lush rallentandos and its voluptuous
ritardandos, the better to seduce
 
Shostakovich is getting ready for the 
real thing, a piece with any partisan 
message, he must sense, can never 
work


by the way, should you disagree 
with any of my evaluations, this 
would not at all be offensive, but
even wonderful, I have been 
wrong, I can prove it, I have the 
dates, they are listed somewhere 
in my papers, but it would mean 
you’re paying attention, listening, 
which is the entire purpose, more
than anything else, of this 
exploratory exercise, should you
wish to participate 

R ! chard

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 2 in B major, opus 14 – “to October”

carpenter-1929.jpg!Large

    “Carpenter (1929) – note the industrialization 
                                       of the subject, however 
                                       Cubist, for better or for 
                                       worse

      Kazimir Malevich

             _________

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 2 doesn’t 
sound like a symphony – one movement
only, a chorus – but was never meant to, 
it had been conceived as a piece in 
commemoration of the October 
Revolution, a significant event in the 
Communist cosmology, and
commissioned by that very polity, 
hence the name, to October

but later, the symphonic poem was 
included chronologically, thus no 2,  
in the Shostakovichian oeuvre – if 
you’ll excuse that pedantry, “oeuvre” 
being too sweet a word for me not to 
resist its austere territoriality – the 
Symphony no 2 in B major being 
first performed in 1927 

it starts a shade above inaudibly, which 
I often find irritating – unless, of course, 
it’s Wagner, or Richard Strauss, who 
knew what they were doing – suggesting 
something significant is rumbling, 
brewing on the musical horizon, after 
which we enter in a lively fashion upon 
a dance, full of folkloric flavour

but the harmonies are atonal, discordant, 
a society, however traditional, is in disorder, 
tonality, one of the stalwarts of Classicism, 
along with tempo and repetition, has been 
upended, distorted, the commune, the 
community, can, no longer unburdened, 
with only discordant harmonies, dance, 
though you can feel them trying

Ravel does something similar in his 
La valse“, where, with a distortion  
of tempo, the world is spinning  

with only a change in volume, intensity,
in Shostakovichthe music becomes 
martial, autocratic, peremptory, nearly 
even frightening

I found at this point that the subtlety of 
the move from the conviviality of dance  
to the aggression delivered by a more 
forceful music, marches and so forth,
lay in a mere alteration of the musical 
pulse, from seduction to, indeed, rape, 
in a simple change of rhythm – thus is it 
written in our very sensibilities 

a violin obbligato then intervenes, 
strangely, but welcome, in a piece of
brash, by this point, agitprop, but 
soon becomes as vociferous as 
earlier the crowd who wanted to, 
however awkwardly, dance

the obbligato, incidentally, instead of
an out and out solo part, as also with 
the piano in Shostakovich’s First 
Symphony, suggests the work of a
a community, a Soviet ideal, rather 
than that of an individual asserting 
hir particular predominance, if you  
listen between the lines

a particularly impressive chorus 
eventually delivers a tribute, a  
hagiographic poem, to Lenin, which 
Shostakovich abjured, but delivered 
nevertheless for the money, and for 
the influence, reportedly, however 
ignominiously, for he was young, 
not fully formed, innocent yet  

it resembles, of course, a cantata, a
religious chant – see Bach, one of the 
evident muses of Shostakovich – but 
which addresses here a political 
system, a cute trick of contemporary 
secular regimes, the several –isms 
within our post-religious ideological
societies 

watch for it

note the spoken, or rather, prosaically 
proclaimed last verses of the oration,
hortatory, don’t you think, or what

R ! chard

psst: incidentally, few composers are as 
          political, though few have been 
          under such ideological pressure,
          as Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 1, opus 10, continued

Dmitrij_Dmitrijevič_Šostakovič_(Дми́трий_Дми́триевич_Шостако́вич)

        Shostakovich in 1925

                   __________

                                        for Barbara, who died recently,
                                                 she would’ve loved this 

Shostakovich was just nineteen when
his Symphony No.1, opus 10 was 
first performed – it had been his 
graduation piece the previous year
from the Petrograd Conservatory –  
by, then, which is to say 1926, the 
Leningrad Philharmonicrenamed the 
Saint Petersburg after the fall of the 
U.S.S.R., the name it had held before 
the Bolshevik Revolution, the oldest 
philharmonic orchestra, therefore, 
incidentally, in our Russia, going  
back to 1882 

the work was a complete success, not 
surprisingly, if you’ll consider its scope, 
its power, and its novel musical 
interpolations, I mean a piano as an 
integral orchestral instrument rather 
than as a distinct, however interrelated, 
component, a pas de 40 instead of 
pas de deuxsomething I can’t remember 
anywhere else having seen for piano 

not to mention the drum roll between 
the last two movements, drums making 
splash in an orchestral setting, who’d 
‘a’ thunk it, though Richard Strauss had
done just that in his extraordinary 
Burleske” several decades earlier,  
another youthful work, Strauss only 21

but meanwhile back in Russia, before 
too seriously digress, Shostakovich  
was immediately compared to another 
earlier young prodigy there, Alexander 
Glazunovwho’d himself put out his 
own First Symphony, the Slavonic“,
at age 16, introducing, incidentally, his 
own instrumental novelty then, an oboe 
obbligato, which by very definition is 
lovely
  
Glazunov also mentored, by the way, 
Shostakovich at the Petrograd, proved
to be instrumental indeed in his 
progress

it’s interesting to put these last two 
together, to compare, the Glazunov, 1881,
follows the traditional Romantic 
imperatives, tempo, tonality and 
repetition, but with more bombast, to my
mind, than its European counterparts,
its fields are the Russian steppes with 
troikas, horse-drawn carriages, flying 
across vast unhampered vistas of the 
Russian snow-covered, therefore 
pristine, tundra, to whet the unbridled 
Russian spirit, the Europeans, Brahms,
MendelssohnMahler, conversely, 
are confined to the hunt, however ever
glorious, but with shrubs, copses,   
thickets, if not veritable forests, to blur
the sonic arena, inspire dreams, 
consequently, less far-reaching than  
those of Johnny Appleseed even, of 
the North American Prairies poets,    
their own far-flung, boundless  
imaginations, inspiration, you can 
hear it all, blatantly, in the resonance
of the horns

you’ll note the movements follow 
essentially the same rhythmic order 
in either symphony, the first two fast 
enough, then a third that’s somewhat 
slower, a variation from the strictly 
Classical order of fast, slow, fast, then
a last, eclectic, movement 

but Shostakovich is more atonal, 
melodically divergent, an eccentricity 
he’ll later polish to a degree of 
politically subversive brilliance

for not submitting, however, to the rule 
of repetition, which is manifest, though,  
in GlazunovShostakovichI find, leaves
us trying to find our bearings as his music 
rolls along, kind of like in biographical 
movies, when you start looking at your 
watch to determine how many life 
incidents remain in this particular, 
however significant, existential drama

as spectacle – and it must be noted that 
symphonic displays were at the time 
indeed spectacles – there was no 
phonographic, photographic 
equipment to transmit such 
experiences, the symphony itself was 
the show, it had, right there, itself, to 
wow the audience

in all of these cases, all of them did 

Shostakovich, however, of all of them 
remained eventually potently 
pertinent, powerfully paramount, 
watch

R ! chard

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 1, opus 10

portrait-of-dmitri-shostakovich-1963.jpg!Large

     “Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich (1963) 

             Martiros Sarian

                    ______

after being transfixed, rendered aquiver, by
this mesmerizing conductor in a performance
I can only remember for his magnetism, 
expressive fingers performing arabesques of 
such exquisite sensitivity, eyes that melt, 
light up, gleam, glitter, at every ebb and flow 
of the turbulent, towering, music, eyebrows 
that, blonde, cherubic, angelic, display with 
manifest intention, the spiritual implications 
of every musical turn, a youth only, in my 
senescent estimation, taking on the conquest 
of the 21st-Century world, lately installed as 
conductor, most illustriously, of both the 
Royal Liverpool, in 2005, and the Oslo, in 
2011, Philharmonics

Vasily Petrenko led me back to Shostakovich,
after his monumental Tchaikovsky 5th,
whereupon I’ve undertaken a chronological 
review of all Shostakovich’s symphonies, 
something I did long ago with Beethoven’s 
sonatas, to my great cultural advantage, it 
was a journey that informed me not only 
intellectually but, even more significantly, 
spiritually, taught me about patience, tumult, 
and the wisdom, even glory, one acquires in 
resignation, so long as you hold onto your 
principles, your core 

you look back, I told a man once, and you 
see what you’ve come through, and you 
are proud, you recognize the hero that 
you are, or weren’t

we have only our poise and grace to lend 
to the world, or our venom and invective

but I digress

here’s Shostakovich, his First, in a line 
of Shostakovichian explorations

if you’ll join me

R ! chard

an homage to the victims of the Titanic

the-fighting-temeraire-tugged-to-her-last-berth-to-be-broken-up-1839.jpg!Large

  The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1839) 

          William Turner

                _______

while I’m on the subject of threnodies
which is to say “song[s] of lamentation
for the dead”, as I earlier statedlet me 
bring your attention to this extraordinary 
piece, an homage to the victims of the
Titanic
 
it doesn’t even have a title, much as 
Mozart and Haydn didn’t before music 
went mainstream, into public forums 
rather than merely aristocratic salons, 
and when an identifying moniker 
instead of a number became manifestly 
more practical, especially when the 
emerging Middle Classes were 
becoming the ones who were paying 
the composer’s bills, at the opera 
houses and the other sprouting 
concert venues, when some composers 
had even up to 32 sets of piano sonatas 
to remember, three and four often to 
a single set, opus number, as many as 
there are movements in a very sonata

and that’s not counting the numbered 

symphonies and string quartets of 
theirs, left to similarly calculate, 
decipher, extricate

it doesn’t have a title, I think, because
to my knowledge, it is the first of its
kind, a composition created by 
computer, for computer, an entirely 
self-contained digital work of, 
manifestly, art – I’d been waiting, 
diligently, for one – and like Beethoven, 
after the work was done, the artist(s)
just felt the title best left to the 
wordsmiths, thus – you’re welcome –  
Threnody for the Victims of the 
Titanic

sure, computers have done practical
things before, admirably, but never 
told a story, and certainly never one 
as profound as this one

these are the last moments of the 
Titanic, digitally reproduced, in real 
time, 2 hours and 40 minutes, they
are mesmerizing, you don’t want 
to miss a thing

there are no voices, apart from a 
few radio transmissions at the 
start, spotting the iceberg, calling 
out commands to beware, stop 
the engines

afterwards only silence, and the 
sound of the waves, the churning
of the engines, which have been 
restarted, sounding as rhythmic, 
incidentally, and numbing, as the 
wheels on the railroad tracks of
Steve Reich‘s Different Trains“,
another powerful threnody 

later the flash and crack of flares,
the crunch of the ship sinking  

the pervasive, however disrupted, 
silence and the inexorable passage 
of ever ticking time combine to be, 
thereafter, transfixing, meditative, 
ultimately transcendent, a fitting 
setting for a threnody 

I know of only another work to take
you to that venerable place,
Beethoven’s opus 111

and often enough Pink Floyd, for 
that matter, and the visionary 
Alan Parsons Project, of course, 
discoursing on inexorable Time 

and, now that I think of it, Elgar‘s
The Dream of Gerontius, whose 
character goes from his deathbed 
in the first act, to his afterlife in 
the second, effecting transcendence
for us by, yes, ingenious 
metaphorical proxy

but I digress

what I call Threnody for the Victims 
of the Titanic is a narrative with 
sound, not a movie, not a television
program, it has more commonality 
with a musical production than 
anything else but painting in art 
history, though its means are 
intuitively literary, ship stories go
back to The Odyssey through
Gulliver’s TravelsTreasure 
Island and to one of my very 
favourites, Ship of Fools“,
relatively recently

I could add Mutiny on the Bounty“,
Moby Dick“, “The Caine Mutiny 

in art, a precedent would’ve been set
in our collective consciousness by 
William Turner‘s celebratedThe 
Fighting Temeraire …, but I would 
mention as well Caspar David 
Friedrich‘s The Wanderer above 
the Sea of Fog for its existential
pertinence

a few literary points I’d like to stress
to back up my overt adulation, I find  
it impressive that the Classical rules
of tragedy have been maintained, 
unity of action, time, and place, 
prescriptions going back to 
Aristotle‘s Poetics in our cultural 
history, to profoundly express 
tragedy, iconic, epic, misfortune

not to mention the Classical musical
imperatives of tempo, tonality and 
repetition, none of which can be 
faulted here in this consummate 
composition

there is a no greater leveller of tempo 
than time, larghissimo here*, in the 
largest sense of that word, the 
cosmic, the inexorable pace of 
temporality in our brief heavens

a greater leveller of tonality neither  
is there than the rigorously impartial 
hum of the imperturbable Cosmos 

nor is there greater repetition than 
uniformity, however disrupted by  
however fervent ever human 
intervention, see Sisyphus, or 
Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf for iconic disrupters

R ! chard

*   Shostakovich had asked the 
     Beethoven Quartet to play the first 
     movement of his 15th String Quartet,
     “Elegy: Adagio“, so that flies 
     drop dead in mid-air, and the 
     audience start leaving the hall from 
     sheer boredom  

     well this inspired elucidation is even  
     slower than that

Shostakovich’s String Quartet no 15, opus 144 (revisited)

on a day of commemoration, or at a moment even of
merely contemplation, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to
revisit Shostakovich’s String Quartet no 15, in E flat
minor, opus 144
, his flurry of mournful adagios, his
string of stately dirges, his penetrating meditation
on mortality

complete this time around, on one only site, though
just a short while ago indeed I said it wasn’t to be
found, March 28, 2012, again I was wrong

today it stood, perhaps not coincidentally, directly
before me as I clicked onto my list of music,
unadulterated, intact, complete, apart from an
irrtating audience member coughing at one point,
unforgivably, for marring so sincere an expression
of fervent string sounds, though only momentarily

by the “Filarmonica” Quartet, of Novosibirsk, Russia,
a city just north of Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the
players are not at all unimpressive

accompanying images are apparently of Russian
inspirational countryside nearby, and of
neighbouring Mongolia

Richard

Dmitri Shostakovich – String Quartet no 15, opus 144

several years ago when an angel I knew passed away
I read at his commemoration something I had written
for him, adagios, I said, always remind me of John

only a few days later, after I’d spoken, an adagio in
the distance was weaving its magic spell as I
abstractedly washed perennial dishes, a pivotal
spot, it would appear, for me, in my mystic
wanderings, my spiritual peregrinations

gradually I recognized the presence I’d apparently
inadvertently evoked with my unsuspecting but
thoughtful and caring script, opening a key, like
Ali Baba, it would transpire, to the very undiluted
infinite, something I’d wished for from my dad,
who’d died just a few months earlier, promising
me he’d speak to me if he could, though by then
I hadn’t yet heard from him

later when I was browsing for music to get into
to while away my pensive hours I happened upon
some Shostakovich in a nearby record store, I’d
recently been exploring his stuff, having reached
forward from the Romantics and even the
Impressionists, and looked to a relatively more
recent touch, the early Twentieth Century

which is to say the atonalists, Schoenberg, Berg,
Stravinsky and so forth, of which Shostakovich,
I would argue, has proven to be the most
significant voice, his music being that of a
desperate, nearly broken people enduring
the atrocities under Stalin

he is the most important composer of the
Twentieth Century, I think, along with Olivier
Messiaen, who survived a German prisoner of
war camp, two tough, even heroic, spirits

and here were not one, not two, not even three,
but six adagios in his 15th String Quartet, when
anything faster was too much for me to bear,
otherwise it would have to have been silence,
I was elated

I was not let down, Shostakovich’s 15th String
Quartet, opus 144, is a masterpiece, and helped
me through my rigorous Calvary with compassion,
grace, and ultimately golden hope, to health and
resignation

it is not an easy piece, you might find it
overwhelming, but it is the last word in adagios,
and for me it means the world, I couldn’t leave
it out

I found the distribution awkward however, I
haven’t found the quartet complete anywhere
on the Internet, you’ll have to access the movements
separately, pee breaks are therefore allowed, there
are six movements, not usual but we’ve seen
Beethoven do five already for his Sixth Symphony,
so not entirely unexpected

the first movement, Elegy (Adagio), is played by the
Rubio Quartet, but with only an image of war torn
Leningrad to inspire visually

the second, Serenade (Adagio), by the Borodin String
Quartet, perhaps Shostakovich’s best interpreters, are
also presented visuals inert

the third, fourth, and fifth – Intermezzo (Adagio),
Nocturne (Adagio), and Funeral March (Adagio molto)

in that order, are played live by the Shostakovich
Quartet, named of course in the composer’s honour

and the sixth, Epilogue (Adagio), again by the Borodin

may you be granted the poise and profound grace
of the adagio

Richard