Seeking Shostakovich . . . in the Verses of Michelangelo

The Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo

The Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo

Some kind of spring has broken in my brain. I have not written a note since the Fifteenth Symphony. That is a terrible state of affairs for me.

—Dmitri Shostakovich,
Letter to Isaak Glikman,
January 16, 1973
[Glikman 188]

In the summer of 1974, not long after claiming he hadn’t “a single musical thought in his head,” Dmitri Shostakovich wrote to Isaak Glikman, “I have been composing quite a lot recently.” [Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975 323, no. 56 and 196]  In 1971, Shostakovich had completed Symphony No. 15, his last. At the time, his final string quartets, the 14th (1973) and 15th (1974), and his last work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano (1975, the year he died), were yet to come, as were three works for voice, including the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, first written for bass and piano (op. 145, 1974) and subsequently orchestrated (op. 145a, 1975).

March, 1975, marked the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s birth, and Shostakovich noted it as a motivation for the Suite. [Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life Loc 4095]  It’s possible, too, that the seeds were planted much earlier, when Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears performed Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo as part of a concert at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1966. Shostakovich wrote Glikman at the time, “The whole concert gave me the greatest pleasure.” [Glikman 136]

Shostakovich chose the poems to set while “leafing through” a book about Michelangelo he’d recently received  “and looking at the reproductions of Michelangelo’s great creations.” [Glikman 196] He listed for Glikman the poems he chose and wrote,

I find it hard to make any judgment about Michelangelo, but it does appear to me that the essence has come through. And by the essence of these sonnets, I had in mind: Wisdom, Love, Creation, Death, Immortality. The translations by Abram Efros are not always successful, however the immense creative power of Michelangelo shines through even an inadequate translation. [Glikman 197]

Michelangelo didn’t give names to his poems, but Shostakovich supplied titles for his settings. One commentator described the eleven settings as “loosely group[ed] into larger sections,” including “a prologue (Truth),” three related to love (Morning, Love, and Separation), three “dramatic statements” (Wrath, Dante, and To the Exile), and four “more interior” settings (Creativity, Night, Death, and “Immortality as a kind of epilogue”).  Another commentator grouped the settings “into four categories with different moods:”

The first ‘movement’ consists of the declaratory Truth and the lucidly lyrical Morning, Love and Separation; the second movement consists of the dramatic Wrath, Dante and To the Exile. The third movement features the pain of living and the yearning for oblivion in Creativity and Night, leading to the finale, Death, and a noble epilogue, Immortality . . . [Marianna Kankare-Loikkanen]

Francis Maes described the settings yet differently. While he identifies the same trio of settings “devoted to love,” he describes two of the songs (Creativity and Night) as “speak[ing] directly about [Michelangelo’s] work as a sculptor,” the next three (Dante, To the Exile, and Creativity) as meditating “on the value of creativity,” and the last three (Night, Death, and Immortality) as “deal[ing] with death.” [Francis Maes, “Between reality and transcendence: Shostakovich’s songs,” The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich Loc 5432-5443]

It’s easy, and perhaps not wholly inappropriate, to be tempted into mining the poems Shostakovich chose for clues about his own life and state of mind—yet the differences among the commentators, even in identifying groupings, suggest a need for caution. As one example, the poem Truth (Sonnet 6) provides a nearly irresistible provocation toward biographical interpretation. Here are its opening lines (in James Saslow’s translation):

My lord, if any ancient proverb is true,
it’s surely this one, that one who can never wants to.
You have believed fantastic stories and talk
and rewarded one who is truth’s enemy.

Saslow described Truth as “an angry denunciation of the ingratitude of some important patron . . . most likely . . . Pope Julius II. [James M. Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation] It takes a good deal of mental fortitude not to draw a direct line from Michelangelo’s suffering under Pope Julius II to Shostakovich’s under Joseph Stalin.

Even more irresistible is the temptation to draw a parallel from Michelangelo’s poem about Dante, To the Exile (Sonnet 250), to the fate of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his supporters, including Shostakovich’s close friends Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife ‎Galina Vishnevskaya. It’s hard to imagine that the poem failed to resonate with Shostakovich on these grounds. After all, the poetry—and the music—we hold most dear is often that which helps us make meaning from, or at least resonates with, our own circumstances.

The important thing is to remember that meanings are multiple—and they might conflict just as often as they are consonant. Francis Maes cautioned of a “tendency, especially in the West,”

To approach songs mainly with a desire for unequivocal answers to vexing questions of meaning in Shostakovich’s music as a whole, based on the tacit belief that words should provide a stable conceptual framework that is lacking in instrumental music. [Maes Loc 5022]

Yet the temptation must be avoided, for the settings are richer than any single biographical strand can suggest. Maes observed,

Can it really be that Shostakovich . . . turned to Michelangelo’s poetry only because he could thereby project his experiences with Stalinism onto the relationship of the Florentine sculptor with Pope Julius II? Such an approach not only denies the multi-layered meanings in the texts and music’s capacity to enrich their content, it even tends to regard only selected sentences from the poems as significant for the meaning of the songs. [Maes Loc 5047]

Better, perhaps, simply to listen—for the settings are exquisite—and let associations arise as they will.

The opening trumpet call of Truth summons me back to Michelangelo’s time and to sculptures of his I saw in Florence. I think, too, about Shostakovich leafing through the book, contemplating what he saw, choosing among the poems, and imagining how he’d set them. I travel forward in time, too, on an imagined trip to Rome.

At other times, I hardly require the poem’s words, let alone any associative trail of thoughts. I need only to listen as wind instruments spiral through Love (Sonnet 42) to understand the sonnet’s plaintive question (“whether my eyes/really see the beauty that I long for,/or if it’s just in me”) and Love’s response.

The percussive blasts in Creativity (Sonnet 46) remind me that Shostakovich “had read that Michelangelo possessed such power and precision that with his very first blow he could hew out of a boulder all the superfluous marble.” [Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered 513-14]  At the same time, I think of a gorgeous meditation on creativity, Sculpting an Angel, that Mark Kerstetter recently noted, which begins:

I’m working the poem the way that
Michelangelo found David in
quarried stone. Deciding which is
pure dream and what is only marble.

From Creativity, the settings move through Night (Epigram 47 and related quotation) and Death (Sonnet 295), the latter with its reprise of the trumpet calls that opened Truth. The Suite could well have stopped here, the reprise of trumpet calls offering a signal that the music—and life—were about to end.

Yet there is one more setting, Immortality. For this setting, Shostakovich chose two epitaphs (190 and 194) from a set of forty-eight [Saslow 3] that Michelangelo wrote to commemorate the death of the 16-year-old nephew of his agent, Luigi del Riccio. Del Riccio had asked for a portrait, but Michelangelo didn’t like portraiture and offered the epitaphs, a sonnet, and a madrigal instead. [Saslow 20] Del Riccio seems to have showered Michelangelo with gifts to entice him, prompting Michelangelo to accompany some of the epitaphs with wry comments. To Epitaph 190, Michelangelo appended the note, “When you don’t want any more of these, don’t send me anything further.” [Saslow 350] He accompanied Epitaph 194 with the note, “I didn’t want to send this one to you since it’s very clumsy; but the trout and the truffles would compel heaven.” [Saslow 356]

It’s hard not to laugh, despite recognizing the solemn occasion that caused the writing of the epitaphs. It’s even harder not to laugh when listening to the mad-cap toyshop tune that opens Shostakovich’s setting, taken from a piano piece he wrote when he was nine. The setting increases in gravitas as it proceeds, but an echo of the toyshop tune sneaks in again at the setting’s close.

I’m reminded of the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, which he described at one point as “a toyshop.” [Wilson 493] Elizabeth Wilson wrote of the Fifteenth Symphony that Shostakovich’s

. . . descriptions of the first movement as a toyshop, a picture of a childhood with unclouded skies, or as a protest against death all serve more to confuse than clarify. In fact there is as much of the enfant terrible as the innocent child in the music . . .”. [Wilson 493]

Much the same might be said of Shostakovich’s musical vision of Immortality.

Is there an end, then? Or do the possible meanings and associations endlessly open out? As Epitaph 194 would have it, “I’m not really dead; though I’ve changed homes,/I live on in you . . .”. [Saslow 356, Epitaph 194] I’m partial to the Pasternakian quality of that formulation, though I suspect it lacks a needed dash of mordant wit.

Maes observed of Shostakovich’s “large vocal cycles” that “Shostakovich moves beyond the closure arrived at in the penultimate song by means of a contrasting or ironic final song.” [Maes 5495-5501]

The tension between reality and transcendence runs through most of his song output. In the late cycles, the quest for transcendent values became especially pronounced. The higher the hopes set on the redeeming quality of art, the more violent the backlash of scepticism . . . . His world-view remained a sceptical one to the end. [Maes 5535]

Well, I don’t know. That sounds a bit like one of those “unequivocal answers to vexing questions of meaning” Maes himself had cautioned against. Perhaps it’s all of the above. Or perhaps Shostakovich was simply reveling in a burst of creativity after a dry spell and, as one great artist to another, responding to Michelangelo’s words in the language of music—the language he knew and loved best.

Selected References

Liner Notes: Shostakovich: Six Romances, Scottish Ballade, Poems Of Michelangelo (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling/Gerald Finley)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes

Boosey & Hawkes entry

Listening List

Dmitri Shostakovich, Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, op. 145a (1975)

Orchestration: 2(II=picc).2.2.2(II=dbn)-

On Spotify (Gerald Finley/Thomas Sanderling/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; in Italian)


Credits: The image at the head of the post may be found here. The quotations may be found at the sources indicated in the post. The page number (or Kindle location number) is given where available.

4 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich . . . in the Verses of Michelangelo

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    The 15th Symphony has everything in it I love about Shostakovich: whimsy, sadness, energy, sharp sonic contrasts, deep poetry, heavy drama and even a bit of collage. I hear some of those things in the Michelangelo Suite. In the ‘Creativity’ section I see showers of sparks and great chunks of rock flying–although in the practice of sculpture Wilson obviously overstates it; those first hits have to be carefully placed, one false move and the nose is gone before it’s even there.

    I like the paragraph in which you take the reader into your head, not only to your past trips but your future ones as well. I too like to get a glimpse of the former glory of Florence with that trumpet blast.

    By the way, Brendan at Oran’s Well has posted a couple more Michelangelo poems.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I so agree about Shostakovich’s 15th! I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and it was such a pleasure to go back to it particularly in the context of the Michelangelo Suite. (By the way, that Finley/Sanderling CD is splendid, top to bottom, and quite a tour de force, as they re-translated the poetry back into the original language; it’s remarkable that they managed to do that and still were able to keep the integrity of the musical setting, which was geared to the Russian. To give a perspective on this, Shostakovich asked another, better, poet to translate the Michelangelo poems into Russian, then was chagrined to realize he couldn’t use them, because they didn’t work with his setting). I have Brendan’s blog in my feed now (thank you so much for noting his work) and I did indeed see that he posted two more fascinating, and quite different, Michelangelo poems. I do love the serendipity of that, across the miles.

  2. David N

    You’re quite right, Sue, about Mae’s ‘scepticism’ comment being one of those “unequivocal answers to vexing questions of meaning”. I think he gets ‘Immortality’ completely wrong. For a start, the vocal ending is deeply dark and serious – the orchestra answers it with the accompaniment of the toybox tune at the beginning without the tune on top, which turns out to be something Shostakovich wrote when he was 9. There’s no mockery here, nor in the enigma of the Fifteenth Symphony, but the strangest assertion of tonality.

    Curiously, I was hosting a talk on Britten’s Death in Venice tonight for the audience who’s going to see it at Garsington in the summer, and a gentleman in the audience asked if all Britten’s endings were pessimistic. Peter Grimes seems to to me, Billy Budd suggests possible release but Aschenbach’s death is transcendent, surely, a kind of Liebestod – and it perfectly mirrors Shostakovich’s Fifteenth. Both close on A major, Britten’s radiant love key. Nothing conventionally ironic or pessimistic there, I fancy, but moving to tears and transporting one to another world. As does ‘Immortality’. So much more to enlarge upon here…especially in tandem with Steuart Bedford, who conducted the world premier of DiV back in 1973 and is returning to conduct it at Garsington.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Good to be confirmed in that–and also appreciated your noting the “accompaniment of the toybox tune at the beginning without the tune on top.” I had thought that was what I heard, but wasn’t able to confirm it. Overall, I did like Maes’s approach, stripping away the layers of biography that seem to accrue to everything Shostakovich wrote to get back to the music and its more open-ended meaning. On the strength of the essay, I got his book on the History of Russian Music out of the library, but I was a bit disappointed in the chapter on Shostakovich, so I haven’t really gone further. Interesting, you noting the question about pessimistic endings in Britten, and examples to the contrary. I’ve been listening to Britten’s Spring Symphony a good bit lately, and the finale, to me, simply blooms with joy. The Death in Venice, with Bedford conducting, makes me, once again, wish I had a magic carpet! This, now, is almost totally off point, but just thinking of all the wonderful things going on in the world, I thought this dance performance of Kullervo, which is on at the Finnish National Opera right now, beautifully done.

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