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 gone. Then, 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.
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.
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.
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.