Seeking Shostakovich (“An Artist-Barbarian”)

Mravinsky and Shostakovich, 1937

Mravinsky and Shostakovich, 1937

In 1936, Joseph Stalin’s Terror was well underway. “By the spring of 1937, the composer’s brother-in-law, Vsevolod Frederiks, had been arrested, his sister Mariya exiled to Central Asia, and his mother-in-law, Sofya Varzar, sent to a labor camp.” [Fay 1414] Elena Konstantinovskaya, a translator with whom Shostakovich had had an affair, was arrested in 1935, though released the following year. [Wilson 553] His friend, composer Nikolai Zhilyayev, was not so lucky. He was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938. [Fay 5522]

After the “Muddle Instead of Music” article in Pravda, Shostakovich, once so visible in the press with comments and articles, retreated into silence. [Fay 1401] Two years passed before the unveiling of another major work. [Fay 1422]

The history surrounding Shostakovich is so dramatic, it’s hard to hear the music on its own, particularly music written after the Pravda article. While I thought it important to understand the historical context of the symphonies, I often despaired of retaining the ability to listen with fresh ears.

It’s fairly easy to set aside Shostakovich’s public “Soviet speak” pronouncements about the Fifth Symphony, like this:

It was man, with all his sufferings, that I saw at the center of this work, lyrical from start to finish. The finale of the symphony resolves the tragically tense moments of the opening movements in a life-affirming, optimistic plan. [Fay 1483]

Nor do I want to rely on the oft-quoted passage from Testimony, as the provenance of the memoir claimed to be by Shostakovich remains a matter of debate:

I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” [Fay 4476, quoting Testimony 183]

After all, as Karen Khachaturian recounted, “Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music . . . . When asked, ‘what did you want to say in this work?’ he would answer, ‘I’ve said what I’ve said.'” [Wilson 423-4]

And speak it did:

One witness recalled that men and women cried openly during the Largo, another that as the finale progressed, the listeners began to rise to their feet, one by one, giving release at the end to a deafening ovation as Mravinsky waved the score over his head. [Fay 1444]

I’d have been content to leave it there, sharing in the exaltation of that moment, had not indefatigable musicological investigators, worthy of the best forensic sleuths, uncovered possible messages encoded in the music itself.

Not long before Shostakovich began work on the Fifth Symphony, he wrote Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin. [Fay 1416] (Alexander Pushkin, it should be known, ran into trouble with his Tsar and was subject to severe censorship of his work.) As the first public performance of Four Romances didn’t occur until 1940 [Wilson 153], few if any could have known that, in the symphony’s finale, Shostakovich quoted from the last two lines of his setting of Pushkin’s Regeneration.

Just as Shostakovich preferred to let his music speak, so too may Regeneration speak for itself:

An artist-barbarian with a drowsy brush
Blackens over the painting of a genius
And senselessly draws on top of it
His own illegitimate designs.
But over the years the foreign paint
Flakes away like old scales,
And the genius’s work appears again
Before us in its former beauty.
Thus do delusions vanish
From my worried soul,
And in their place visions arise
Of pure, original days.

[Ross 257]

Listening List

Prufrockian Impressions: I experience the first three movements of the Fifth Symphony as powerfully expressive, rich and deep. In the first movement, listen for the second theme, first on violins, then on woodwind and horn, an apparent allusion to Bizet’s opera Carmen (more on this below). One of many striking moments is the return of the opening theme on rasping brass with a sinister piano line beneath [Spotify ~8:57]; another is the poignant celesta as the movement fades to a close. The second movement provides engaging contrast with its impudent frolicking among strings, woodwinds, and horns. Listen for the violin’s solo dance, picked up on flute [Spotify ~1:40]. In the third movement (the largo), the brass fall silent. From the stately unfolding of orchestral harmonies and poignant woodwind lines to the delicate harp and celesta at the movement’s end, the largo is the symphony’s heart-rending soul.

In the final movement, however, as soon as I hear those resounding thumps on timpani and blaring brass, I suspect something more than “absolute music”  is afoot. Listening to the quotation from the Pushkin setting among the movement’s propulsive blasts, swept aside by a coda so relentless it’s visible on the page, I can’t help but feel Shostakovich is saying in music something he could not say in words.

Fifth Symphony IV. Coda

Fifth Symphony IV. Coda

Shostakovich once said of the Fifth, which “rehabilitated” him in the eyes of the authorities:

I finished the symphony fortissimo and in the major. Everyone is saying that it’s an optimistic and life-affirming symphony. I wonder, what would they be saying if I had finished it pianissimo and in the minor.” [Fay 1505]

The Fourth Symphony—which, like the Pushkin settings, remained out of view for several more years—does end pianissimo and in the minor. In the Fifth, Shostakovich must have known he couldn’t take that chance. Instead, from the opening thumps of timpani to the finale’s strident close, he was his own “artist-barbarian.”  Yet beneath the “foreign paint” lies that phrase from Pushkin, perhaps reminding him then, and certainly reminding us now, that “over the years the foreign paint/Flakes away like old scales.”

Richard Whitehouse’s liner notes, accompanying the Petrenko/Liverpool Royal Philharmonic CD, provide a helpful guide for listening.

For a listening list on Spotify, including the Regeneration setting, and now also including Mahler’s First Symphony, click here.

David Nice, in his comments to this post, observed “Of course the D major ‘false triumph’ at the end, with the flattened note souring it, is a parallel to another beginning – Mahler’s First, with its concluding ‘Triumphal’, also in D major.”

The Fifth Symphony on YouTube

While the Mravinsky video is not the best for audio quality, I chose it because Mravinsky, when young and unknown [Wilson 152], conducted the premiere of the Fifth Symphony. He went on to conduct the premieres of six more Shostakovich symphonies.

I couldn’t find the Regeneration setting on YouTube, but Alex Ross has side-by-side audio clips (and much more) here.

Bonus track:

After her release from prison, Shostakovich’s former lover, Elena Konstantinovskaya, moved to Spain and married filmmaker Roman Karmen. Musicologists have found numerous references to Bizet’s Carmen in the Fifth Symphony, including an allusion to “L’amour! L’amour!” from the Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”) aria. In the Mravinsky video, I believe I hear the allusion twice in the first movement, at about 4:12 (strings), 12:04 (flute), but please correct me if I’m wrong.

Here’s a smoldering Habanera for comparison. (“L’amour! L’amour!” is at about 1:12.)


Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here  and here.  The quotation from Alex Ross may be found at the link indicated in the text. The photograph at the head of the post appears in several locations, none of which identify the source. The image from the Fifth Symphony score is from Richard Taruskin’s Music in the Early Twentieth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music at 793-794.

15 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich (“An Artist-Barbarian”)

  1. wanderer

    I need to think about the ‘listening with fresh ears’ which were not the ears, nor hearts nor minds for whom he wrote, nor ever yours, nor us with you, when you explore these times with such depth and tenacity.

    I confess to having rushed pretty early on to hear Elina Garanca’s incredibly sexy turn, and the meeting of eyes (lingering just a few seconds longer than reasonably expected) with Dudamel gave me naughty thoughts.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: Yes, interesting issue, the “listening with fresh ears.” Agreed, we can’t hope to hear with the ears, hearts, or minds who lived through the same time. I’m not sure, though, that any composer writes solely for his time. Out of it, yes, informed by it and affected by it, yes, but with the hope that the music will endure long beyond. While the meaning for us necessarily comes out of our own time and place (even if informed by the historical context), Shostakovich’s best music, it seems to me, speaks across the barriers of language, cultural context, and time. (Sorry for the delay in responding to you and all, but I’m hopeful the reason is clear enough.)

  2. shoreacres

    This, I understand: “Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music . . . . When asked, ‘what did you want to say in this work?’ he would answer, ‘I’ve said what I’ve said.’”

    That’s the voice of a creator, not an encoder. I believe I’ll go have a listen, and see if I can imagine Shostakovich himself having a listen to his creation – just to hear what he said.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I love the idea of listening to see if you can imagine Shostakovich doing so, “just to hear what he said.” (That’s part of what I find so fascinating about his quotation to the Pushkin setting in the last setting. He’s speaking to us directly in and through the music. Powerful stuff.)

  3. David N

    You encouraged me to comment Over There, Sue, and I was going to, but I’m not sure I can add much, since you’ve covered most bases. As you know, I like this symphony least of all the greats – only 3 and the execrable 12 interest me less – but there’s still plenty to admire in it as pure music. The spareness of the palette sometimes amazes: the way he delays using the celesta until those frozen upward crawls at the end of the first movement you cite, and last night taking the BBC Symphony students through the orchestra as represented in the season’s rep, I used the reprise of the scherzo for pizzicati – amazing how just two twiddles from the piccolo and the stalking of bassoon/contrabassoon back up violins, violas and cellos (no basses).

    Of course the D major ‘false triumph’ at the end, with the flattened note souring it, is a parallel to another beginning – Mahler’s First, with its concluding ‘Triumphal’, also in D major. I hadn’t thought of this until last night, when to illustrate full brass I placed the two endings side by side. BTW, discredited though it is, there’s still nothing wrong in citing the infamous ‘memoirs’ of Testimony with a caution attached. The ‘beating to rejoice’ image is still the most powerful.

    As for the encoding, Shostakovich was both – genius and encoder. References, hidden or otherwise, are part and parcel of great composers’ work under Stalin, whether we get fed up with the ‘Stalin subtext’ business or not.

    Garanca – love her Carmen, as you know. She’s especially convincing in dark wig on the Met film. I’ve never seen a better – sexy without being vulgar.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I want you to know I’m with you all the way on the Eighth, which I’ve been listening to lately, and which you’d identified, when I posted the Fifth earlier, as the greater work. Nonetheless, I’m really glad you came over to comment on the Fifth. As always, your comments on the music are oh-so valuable. And here’s something else I really love: even with this piece, which you (quite reasonably) don’t see as one of his best works, you have discovered something new: “Of course the D major ‘false triumph’ at the end, with the flattened note souring it, is a parallel to another beginning – Mahler’s First, with its concluding ‘Triumphal’, also in D major. I hadn’t thought of this until last night.”

      Now, as for Testimony, I don’t want to be too emphatic about this, as I’m just thinking out loud, but the historian in me just balks. (I think Fay’s only valid choice was, as she did, to set it aside in preparing her biography, and I find her discussion of it and other sources in the introduction thoughtful and well-reasoned.) In the case of the Fifth, I actually don’t find the Testimony version the most powerful, but rather what Shostakovich says to us by quoting the Pushkin setting in the text, then running it over with the finale’s coda.

      That itself, though, is case in point to your overall observation on the “encoder” aspect of great music under Stalin. I’m just a lot happier when I know for sure that the source of the encoding is Shostakovich. In contrast, the magnificent Wilson book doesn’t present the same problem precisely because she makes clear who the sources are and corrects factual errors when necessary, and we get a multiplicity of voices that allows what might most likely be true to emerge. (I love, in that book, what Berlinsky said of a story circulating about the Fourth Quartet: “you cannot lie in music.” It’s a complicated equation, but I think it’s true.)

      What disturbs me most about Testimony is the way it has, to my mind, polluted so much commentary, even down to the liner notes. The liner notes with my CD of the Tenth are deplorable in this regard. (It’s not the Petrenko, but an older CD I own.) There is virtually no description of the music at all. It’s just buried under the commentary–another reason why you’re so right about Elizabeth Wilson’s musical analyses. Her analyses of the Tenth and the Fifteenth in her book are precious goods. In stark contrast, I have formed the impression that way too many commentators have come to use Testimony as a crutch, rather than thinking for themselves.

      PS: I’ve now included Mahler’s First on the Spotify listening list, so others might listen side-by-side to the last movements, if they’d like. Thanks again for noting that, among so much else.

      1. David N

        The sceptical, legal mind impressively at work. ‘Polluted’ is the word. There are many apercus in Testimony which are so pithily expressed that I still have recourse to them, always now with the qualification of disputed authenticity (there was one, for instance, on Lieutenant Kije I found germane to the Prokofiev biog). I wonder if the phase of total obsession with ‘the Stalin subtext’, which reached its apogee in the late Ian MacDonald’s by no means all bad study (it’s the embarrassing bits that tend to get quoted), isn’t abating. But just as people’s first question to me about Strauss, stated with the air of fact, is ‘but wasn’t he a Nazi?’, so ‘didn’t Shostakovich have a hard life under Stalin?’ is the first about DDS. More truth in that, of course, but as you write, it’s not the whole story and interpreters like Petrenko seem to be freer to interpret just the music.

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who did not live through the kind of world Shostakovich did to understand what it’s like, and the temptation to search for coded messages in the music is almost overpowering, so I deeply appreciate your

    “While I thought it important to understand the historical context of the symphonies, I often despaired of retaining the ability to listen with fresh ears.”

    but I hasten to add I think you’re right about Carmen. And the Pushkin reference! -that is what I appreciate most about this installment. I’m trying to resist my feeling that the last 3 minutes of the symphony sound forced, but it’s very hard.

    P.S. I really appreciate your growing skills at describing your impressions of music.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I had much the same reaction as you did upon the discovery of the Pushkin reference. I’m now trying to find a book of Pushkin poems in a less-than-awful translation that includes this poem. (No dice, so far.) Thanks for the vote of confidence on the Carmen quotes, too. It seemed pretty clear, but it’s tough for me to feel comfortable about such things. Allied to what I noted in my rather long, I see, disquisition to David, I’m much more comfortable in my response to a “subtext” when the evidence is so clearly audible right there in the music, as I think the Pushkin is, and, really, visually, as well as aurally, in the score. (Thanks much, too, for the “PS.”)

  5. newleafsite

    Susan, I am also of two minds regarding the historical background of a work of art, in cases where it’s not essential to know it. One mind is interested in some understanding of the artist’s life, as opposed to current events; the other fears the artist and his art becoming less special, even lost, in too broad a context. I appreciate your sensitivity in walking the razor’s edge between the two in this series.

    Interesting choice in Elina Garanca as Carmen, over the usual debate between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. A personal favorite of yours? An unusual version of “Carmen” which I enjoy appears in “All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes”( “Carmen” begins at about 2:03; we are warned that it includes seduction, brawls, jailbreak, smuggling, premarital sex, stabbing of animals, and murder! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: It’s quite a conundrum, and you’ve expressed it so well. I also have a strong predilection (some might call it a failing) to want to make up my own mind about things. About Carmen, monkey at the keys here. I had to look up the aria to do a side-by-side listen, and this video came up almost right away. It was such a dazzler, no question but I wanted to include it. (The “All Great Operas in 10 Minutes” was a delight, speaking of finds!)

  6. mangofantasy

    Loving your thoughtful and fascinating Shostakovich series! I’m currently reading the book by Elizabeth Wilson and falling in love with him all over again, and now feeling a desire to contribute my own thoughts, although, as you said at the beginning, I’m not sure what more there is to add. Thanks for all the enlightening observations!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      mangofantasy: Welcome aboard! That Wilson book is a treasure, isn’t it? I look forward to hearing from you with your thoughts whenever you’d like!

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