Seeking Shostakovich (Introduction)

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1925

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1925

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his music lie buried beneath such an insurmountable heap of words, it seems ridiculous to add even one more. Yet here I am, in true Prufrockian spirit, insisting on seeking “my” Shostakovich on the page. I hope you’ll join me in the search and add your own impressions along the way.

Aside from my encounter with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in high school, my “true” introduction to Shostakovich was through a novel, William T. Vollman’s Europe Central. Vollman’s book inspired me to obtain more of Shostakovich’s symphonies and a set of the string quartets. I listened to them all, some more than once. There were many things I admired, and some I grew to love, yet ultimately I set them aside and went on to other things.

In 2006, I heard live the Tenth Symphony and A Minor Violin Concerto, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. I’ll always remember how, at the end of the concert, Rostropovich held up a score and pressed it against his chest, in loving remembrance of his former teacher and friend. The next year, he too was goneThen, in 2010, I saw Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, which became the first (and so far only) opera I’ve ever raced back to see twice in a row.

Last year, my interest was piqued again by David Nice’s review of a live performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony on The Arts Desk,  and particularly this:

There are noises throughout the symphony which any composer writing today would kill to discover: the clashing semitonal drone of two low-register horns, mutant birdsong from the E flat clarinet, the deathly clickings of side-drum, woodblock and castanets at the shadowy end of the scherzo.

I bought the CD and listened to it repeatedly, marveling at the effects I was able to hear and wanting to know more. Though my score-reading skills are primitive, I took the plunge and put a hold on the New York Public Library’s one circulating copy. That was last October, and I’m still waiting for it to come in.

When I decided to go back to Shostakovich this summer, Nice came to my aid. I had the thought to take another whack at the symphonies, but there are 15, and we all know what happens to good intentions. Nice winnowed down the choices to nine, still overwhelming, but also serving as a spur. I became determined to stop floating over the top of Shostakovich and try to get inside his music and his world.

There was also the question of what to read (because I always need something to read). I took out Vollman’s book, but this time around, after 100 pages, I realized I had to put it down. I didn’t want to read about Shostakovich through a filter, not even the dazzling product of Vollman’s antic imagination. This time, I needed to go to “the source” and discover my own Shostakovich.

Well, there is no “source,” of course, and certainly not in English. I ordered Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (which will be referred to throughout this series as “Wilson,” followed by the page reference). Nice came to my aid again, confirming the choice of Wilson and adding Laurel Fay’s biography, Shostakovich: A Life (referred to throughout this series as “Fay,” followed by the Kindle location reference), and Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941-1975. I’ve completed reading Wilson, and Fay’s biography is underway. As happens all too often in these parts, the book of Shostakovich-Glikman letters, though promised, hasn’t yet turned up, to my dismay.

So, enough of all that. In the next post, I’ll begin.

Listening List

All the pieces noted here were written in the period from 1927-1929, when Shostakovich was in his early twenties.

For a Spotify playlist, click here

On YouTube:

The Nose (1927–1928) (the percussion interlude begins at approximately 4:09)

Shostakovich composed his opera The Nose in 1928.  He was twenty-two, early in his composing career.  The Met’s Program Note characterizes the opera as “a map holding the key to his future work.” One of the opera’s several orchestral interludes, scored for nine percussion instruments, “is considered one of the earliest examples of a percussion ensemble in Western music.”

[Quotes are to the Met Opera, March 2010, Playbill.] A post about the opera production I attended may be found here.

Intermezzo, from the incidental music for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s satiric play, The Bedbug (1929) (arrangement for solo piano on YouTube, orchestrated version on Spotify)

Nikolai Sokolov recalled:

‘Mitenka’, as V. W. Meyerhold fondly called him, was writing the music to the play. His appearance was that of a boy—very thin and scrawny, pale, with a thick head of hair; . . . . His light-coloured myopic eyes looked out in bewilderment through his spectacles at all that surrounded him. His gait was nervous and rapid, as were the constant movements of his hands. . . .  The music [March and Intermezzo for The Bedbug] was sharp, angular and unusual, but it was easy to remember, and Meyerhold himself commented, “That’ll blow away the cobwebs in our brains!” [Wilson 89-90]

Tahiti Trot (1927); orchestration by Shostakovich, song by Vincent Youmans 

Legend has it that on a dare from [Nikolai] Malko [Shostakovich] was given an hour to orchestrate from memory the foxtrot “Tea for Two” from Vincent Youmans’s musical No, No Nanette, popularized in Russia under the name “Tahiti Trot.” He dashed it off in forty-five minutes. [Fay 693-701]


Credits: The quotation from David Nice is from The Arts Desk article linked in the text. The photograph, apparently taken Jun 28, 1925, appears on the original album cover for the Shostakovich Symphonies No 1 & 3/Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic CD from Naxos. The original source for the photograph is the DSCH Archive.

24 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich (Introduction)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: There is nothing like a librarian, nothing in the world . . . (recognize the tune, perchance, though with a few xtra syllables . . .). Anyway, thank you, thank you, and as you know, I have followed up with the lovely librarian here. Knocking wood!

      1. angela

        Though not a true ‘librarian’, I cannot help be smile that your post quickly made me put on that hat, Sue. Finally getting back to your post, I found it rather fun that you included the Intermezzo – I went running for Mayakovsky’s book looking for insight into the play. A wonderful post, as always, and looking forward to my future education via P. Dilemma! ~ a

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          angela: I most definitely had you in mind in choosing The Bedbug piece–it’s you who really put the spotlight on Mayakovsky for me. There are so many trails to follow! In the theater world from those times, another fascinating person was experimental theater producer and director Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold, who met a terrible end, as did his wife, during the Stalinist period.

  1. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    so you have a new project. Books one ordered that don’t come are a nuisance here too. I’m looking forward to your insights!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: So nice to hear from you, and sorry I’ve been out of touch. This summer has been a bit of a wild ride. Always enjoy your photos coming over the transom, please know . . .

  2. newleafsite

    Susan, your writings are always so comprehensive that, even in the limited space of a blog post, I can usually find at least a comfortable little corner. Spot me in the corner where I’m swaying to, and trying not to spill my own tea over, the surprising arrangement of “Tea For Two” – the most fun anyone’s had with the piece since the inspired pairing of Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli ( Such a little gem, and what a whimsical inclusion here! Add the photo of Cat with composer (surely not the other way around?!), and you have definitely found aspects of Shostakovich that makes him “yours.” Looking forward to your “beginning,” as you refer to it, though the exploration has already taken root here. — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Finally got a chance to come back and listen to the link. The album photo alone is adorable, and their rendition a pure delight. Raising a cuppa to you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Wasn’t that great? So glad you enjoyed it too. If you haven’t already, I hope you have a chance to look at a bit of The Nose. I was amazed to find the whole of it online. It’s the same production I saw, by William Kentridge, and I think you might appreciate the use of collage (if that’s the right term for it).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Ah, yes, I can always count on you to say what others are only willing to think! No assignments have been given, as you well know, so you are free to do as you please. BUT, if at any point you have a Shostakovich story to share from yours and Beloved’s vast concert-going and playing days, I hope you will!

  3. David N

    I love it that this is only the start of the journey. And that you’ve chosen cat with DDS, what a wonderful photo. Not wishing to direct your future choices, but I love the one of him roaring at a football match (1930s, I think) and with the pigs at the composers’ state summer farm. We nearly always see the tragic face and your choice of music shows what fun he had. Must go back to my Rustem disc. This was his brilliant debut – I know him well and have never understood why he hasn’t so far really consolidated his rightful place alongside the newer generation of Russian greats.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: So glad to be alerted to these other photographs, and please never hesitate. As you note, we’re generally served up the tragic face, but there is so much more to this extraordinary man. (I wondered who Rustem Hayroudinoff might be and am glad to be introduced to him. It’s hard to understand why one fine performer becomes well known, another not.) This exploration is fascinating and, in equal measure, overwhelming. So much has been writ, and what does it all mean? In the end, I keep reminding myself, the arguments and counter-arguments are irrelevant: it’s the music that counts.

      1. David N

        Rustem’s Chandos recording of Rachmaninov’s mesmerising Etudes Tableaux is a wonder – my ‘library choice’ when I had to work my way through the second set for Radio 3 (narrowly pipping Alexander Melnikov to the post).

        There’s an almost obscene hunger to know more about DDS’s suffering – hence the superabundance of literature. I love Wilson and Fay both because they try to stick to facts. Wilson leaves it to the memories of others, which may of course not always be as accurate as letters. A lot of people find Fay too dry, but her aim was to lay down the facts as far as they could be established, and I admire her for that.

        I still think a book remains to be written about the extraordinary correspondences between Shostakovich and Britten, long before they became official soulmates: how repressions of different kinds can lead to anguished but coded masterpieces.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: What a wonderful book idea the Britten-Shostakovich is. I was fascinated by the bits of Britten-related reminiscences and the Pears diary entries in Wilson’s book. In re Wilson’s and Fay’s books, it was particularly interesting to see your comment here, as I’ve drafted a little on the books to include in my next post. I had drafted it before I saw your comment, but had much the same response. There are many times where I’ve held on to Fay’s book, in particular, as a life raft in the sea of misinformation and argument that swirls around Shostakovich. Very hard to ferret out whatever truth is known. (I’ve added the RH recording you mentioned to my ever-growing wish list. Thanks for that.)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I do recall that, now that you’ve noted it again. Many thanks for this, which I have now added to my ever-growing list of bookmarked materials!

  4. shoreacres

    Even the great unwashed can find their way into Shostakovich! My first “real job” was as part-time cashier at a retail music store. Clarinet reeds. Sheet music. LPs. That’s where I purchased my first classical music, and I thought I remembered – very vaguely – some Shostakovich, along with Beethoven’s 5th, assorted Debussey and a bit of Ravel.

    I was right. It was the Symphony No.5 I purchased. I haven’t listened to it in quite some time. Years, actually. But in the process of listening to assorted bits on YouTube, I found a delight called Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 – YouTube Comments . It’s a hilarious mashup of performance and comments left on youtube – spoken over the music. You’ll see.

    Now, I’m off to see what other delights the guy has on his site. I may not be taking all this seriously enough, but a good laugh never hurt anyone!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Yet another reason to disable the comments function on YouTube. I do wonder, though only briefly, what possesses some people. Now, as for your youthful purchases, I’m curious about what, if any of that music, you may have liked. I so well remember my youthful purchases, with no idea what I was doing, and grasping at straws, so little of it did I understand.

      1. shoreacres

        I liked it all, but special favorites were the Shostakovich, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, much Bach, including “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (Glenn Gould) and Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto in A Major”. Mastering that was the high point of my career as a clarinetist, my freshman year in college. Then, it occured to me that continuing on as a music major probably would lead only to junior high teaching or tutoring, and that was the end of that.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          shoreacres: Wise beyond your years, and you got a helluva lot further than I did. I was politely but firmly encouraged to drop my attempts at playing flute in high school . . . I just couldn’t figure out how to blow the thing. You do know, you realize, that your attempts to disguise yourself as a member of the great unwashed have been unmasked with this!

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