When the chairman of the Committee for the Arts viewed Ilya Slonim’s bust of Shostakovich, he wasn’t pleased: “What we need is an optimistic Shostakovich.” [Wilson 198] Shostakovich had a wicked sense of humor, and his parody of Soviet speak was spot-on. [Wilson 197] It’s easy to imagine him mimicking the chairman’s phrase, which he loved to do. [Wilson 198]
His fast friend for many years was polymath Ivan Sollertinsky. Sollertinsky would arrive on the scene, “spread his shaggy greatcoat on the floor and recite the Petrarch sonnets, or sing right through a Mahler symphony in his funny falsetto, recalling every voice note for note with complete precision.” [Wilson 74]
Once they went with a group of friends to a beach. In a scene that might have come straight out of Withnail and I,
Two figures—that of Sollertinsky and our slim Mitya—could be seen striding through the water, staggering from side to side . . . . We saw them swigging down brandy from the same bottle. Sollertinsky, it is said, taught Mitya how to drink.” [Wilson 74]
Shostakovich was always in motion. When he was sitting for his bust, Slonim had the devil of a time getting him to stay still.
For the first five minutes he sat bolt upright, then he would practice five-finger exercises on his cheek, then he hung his head between his knees and covered his whole head with his hands. [Wilson 198]
He was a “quite a poker fiend.” [Wilson 123] Once, in 1936, when he was broke “and surviving on credit, he . . . dropped 1,000 rubles, prompting a sleepless night spent musing on the theme, ‘unlucky in cards, unlucky in love, unlucky in profession.’” [Fay 1571]
He was a “rabid” soccer fan as well. “He comported himself like a little boy; leapt up, screamed, gesticulated.”[Fay 1577] He kept a log of soccer scores for many years [Fay 1584] and once interrupted his vacation “to return to Leningrad to attend a match.” [Fay 1579]
He loved the circus, too. While writing his First Symphony, he went whenever he could. [Fay 385] He was “awestruck by the twelve ferocious Bengal tigers that . . . leaped through flaming hoops.” [Fay 465] He once told some disdainful students that
The circus is the purest of art forms. . . . like any genuine art form it brooks no counterfeit. The director’s tone-deaf wife, the committee chairman’s aunt or somebody else may sing in opera. But only a person expertly trained can perform on the flying trapeze. It is inconceivable to enter the lion’s cage simply by “pulling strings.” [Fay 4354]
That the circus makes an appearance in the Sixth Symphony can come as no surprise.
A listening list on Spotify may be found here.
Sixth Symphony (1939)
Prufrockian Impressions: This is a symphony with which I was entirely unfamiliar, and I consider it an enormous find. Each movement is a perfect jewel, yet how Shostakovich conceived of the symphony’s overall structure was impossible (for me, at least) to divine.
The pianist Jonathan Biss, in describing the unconventional form of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12, Opus 26, said
If I were to try to explain to you why these movements belong together . . . I would fail. It is the genius of Beethoven . . . [that] . . . his instinct for narrative, his intuitive understanding of the emotional impact of his music is so strong, so unimpeachable, that everything that occurs feels inevitable.
Biss’s words resonated as I listened to Shostakovich’s Sixth.
While the Sixth Symphony is a “three-ringer” in terms of movements, circus is certainly not what comes to mind in the way it starts. The first movement is a grave and stately largo, its spacious weave of themes controlled throughout by an expert hand. Listen for the undertow of trilling strings and notes on timpani out of which cor anglais, muted trumpets, and woodwinds emerge [Spotify ~ 7:12]; the sounding of a gong and a lone flute’s sinuous departure from the theme first heard on cor anglais [Spotify ~ 12:07]; the celesta [Spotify ~ 14:55] signaling the shift to a lyrical passage on horns and strings; and the final dying away on strings and timpani [Spotify ~ 18:49].
In the second movement, we are plucked from the Largo (longer than the other two movements combined) into a whirling witch’s dance. The last movement takes us on an even wilder ride as a hurtling galop forms up into a rousing circus march.
Program notes for the Sixth Symphony may be found here.
Seventh Symphony (1941)
Prufrockian Impressions: I’ll not be writing about the Seventh Symphony, though I’ve written about it in another context here. In musical terms, it’s Shostakovich’s longest symphony, but far from his best. As part of musical history, though, the Seventh Symphony has more than earned its place. How often is it that a single piece of music has mattered to so many people as much as this:
Music was everything. Never mind the kasha or that we were hungry. No one could feed us, but music inspired us and brought us back to life. In this way, this day was our feast.
—Ksenia Matus, oboist and a member of the orchestra that performed the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad during the siege.
Program notes for the Seventh Symphony may be found here.
Endnote: I’ll be taking a break from the Seeking Shostakovich series at this point. The number of magnificent works among the last eight symphonies is high, and words have already begun to fail. As I continue to listen, David Nice’s comment on the Fourth Symphony keeps coming back to me, so I’ll repeat it here:
I’d say the Fourth is the first peak, the Eighth the second, and everything around the final years of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth the third. What an unquenchable genius for self-renewal.
Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here and here. The quotation from Ksenia Matus is from the documentary Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies [on YouTube at about 40:02]. The quotation from Jonathan Biss is my transcription of a comment of his from Week Three, Lecture 2, of his excellent course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, the link to which may be found here. The remaining quotations are from the sources indicated in the text. The images in the post may be found in numerous places; I have not been able to identify their source.