Responses to recent postings (2)

by Ian MacDonald

Re: Light-hearted Ninth?
August 4th 1995

John-Michael Albert considered what we might call the "tone of voice" of the Ninth Symphony, often assumed in the West to be a predominantly breezy and depthless work. Describing the interpretation of a Soviet-educated protegé of Bernstein's, Mr Albert wrote: "I thought this would be a frothy lark, fun for the student musicians, fun for the audience. No way. He worked them again and again on the sarcasm, the truculence of the music. Their youthful inclination was to find the lyricism and beauty in their parts. The rehearsal was stopped many times to make a section less lyrical and more sarcastic - especially the woodwinds."

This conception would have been furthest from Bernstein's in the symphony's second movement. "Tone of voice" here depends largely on tempo: play the work too slowly and you have an interlude of sagging pathos (e.g., Bernstein and, by far the worst offender, Kurtz); play it, as marked, Moderato (e.g., Kondrashin, Järvi, Janssons) and you have a subtle satire on official mourning decreed by a government which killed more of its own citizens than Hitler.

That Shostakovich was touchy about tempo in this movement for such interpretative reasons is evident from his letters to Koussevitsky during 1946-7. Taking issue with Koussevitsky's sluggish tempo in the Moderato (recorded 4th November 1946 and sent to the composer for his comments), Shostakovich replied on 4th February 1947 that, while arguing over note-values was in itself unimportant, "what's crucial is that, in your interpretation, my symphony won't come across to listeners in precisely the way I want it to". Here we have a rare instance of the composer confirming on paper that there was a special way in which he wished his music to be performed - a way, we may assume, congruous with his general (i.e., not solely technical) intentions in composing it. These intentions were paramount to him. A letter to Koussevitsky sent a fortnight later shows Shostakovich greatly agitated by the conductor's refusal to grasp his meaning: "To me it is very insulting that you do not wish to admit my remarks worthy of attention on the occasion of your performance of my Ninth Symphony."

In papers published several years ago in DSCH, Richard Pleak and Derek Hulme pieced together the background to this altercation, revealing that, following an additional exchange of letters, Shostakovich at last managed to persuade Koussevitsky that his half-speed reading of the Moderato was unacceptable. On 2nd April 1947, Koussevitsky hurriedly re-recorded the movement and patched it into his existing recording (issued in the USA as Victor 78 rpms 11 9634-6 and in the UK as RCA Victrola LVM2 7510C-D). Hulme notes that, properly played, the Moderato should last about six minutes. He further reveals that the conductor-composer Gavril Yudin (b. 1905) heard Alexander Gauk conduct the Ninth in Moscow in January 1946 and was "appalled" to hear the Moderato played well below Shostakovich's metronome marking of crotchet = 208. When Yudin shortly afterwards met Shostakovich and told him he was preparing a performance of the Ninth, the latter grinned and implored Yudin not to drag out the second movement as Gauk had.

John-Michael Albert is right to point to this symphony as highly significant in the continuing debate over Shostakovich's inner meaning. "Here [he writes] we have the axis on which the interpretation of Shostakovich will turn in the future. And it will turn. Here we have music that can be played fun, frothy, exuberant, and celebratory but whose origins and, indeed, whose first interpreters, including Kondrashin, who had Shostakovich sitting in the empty hall and commenting during their rehearsals, have created works of great grit, genuine angst, and acid sarcasm - from the same score." Fortunately in the case of the Ninth's second movement we can be confident in resolving the issue of which is the correct approach: not pseudo-tragedy but stealthy satire. Moreover, if satire is the "tone" here, it is surely so throughout this pointed and sarcastic work?

An illuminating parallel to the performance variations in the Ninth Symphony can be found in Rostislav Dubinsky's Stormy Applause (recommended to all readers of Four years before its official première by the Beethoven Quartet in 1953, the Borodins gave an audition of Shostakovich's new Fourth Quartet at the Ministry of Culture:

"We put our hearts and souls into that performance. We emphasised everything that socialist realism requires to be concealed. We spoke the truth! When we had finished, silence fell. Was it more eloquent than any praise? Or was it an ominous silence that could become a death sentence? We looked at each other, and I hastened to say, 'Will you permit us to play it once more?' We were given a nod of assent.

"This time we played it differently. The tempi were faster, the sound lighter. We removed all possible 'anti-Soviet' insinuations from the music. Even our faces tried to look optimistic. We lied! We presented the foreboding mood of the first movement as a hope for a brighter future; the plaintive lyricism of the second as a pleasant little waltz; the sinister muted scherzo became a cheerful dance; and the tragic Jewish themes of the finale took on traditional Oriental colouring. The tension eased. There were smiles. We were thanked, even praised. The music was still banned."

Re: Lady Macbeth
August 14th 1995

I can't agree with John-Michael Albert in his estimate of the Second and Third symphonies as unequivocally "in praise of the Leninist system". They seem to me far more ambiguous and individualistic than that - and, indeed, Shostakovich's attitude to his country's political system seems to have been sceptical from at least 1926 onwards. (My essay on this, "His Misty Youth", will appear in an anthology of material on Shostakovich later this year.) Part of Mr Albert's - or is it Maxim's? - misapprehension over the "tone" of these works seems to stem from a belief that the Twenties in Russia was a time of enormous artistic freedom in which the country was "flooded with the avant-garde" and that all of this later "came to a crashing halt with Stalin". In fact, the truth is far less clear-cut. Lenin was conservative in his artistic tastes and saw to it that the early radicalism of the Proletkult was curbed. Furthermore, the experimentalism of the early Twenties was politically loaded and to a great extent politically directed. To be avant-garde was to be anti-bourgeois and thus against the "old people" of the preceding, Tsarist, regime. Far from playful, much of the épater le bourgeois spirit in early Bolshevik art was vengeful and driven by ideological hatred.

When NEP was ordained, the authorities countered all genuinely liberal developments with subversive agit-prop cultural initiatives. (E.g., RAPM, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, was launched under state sponsorship to challenge the ACM, or Association of Contemporary Musicians, whose interest in Western trends in music was deemed counter-revolutionary.) As Commissar for Enlightenment, Lunacharsky had a running battle with the repressive collectivism of the Left activists throughout the Twenties. Far from a halcyon interlude of unalloyed freedom, the years between Lenin's death and Stalin's accession were fraught with confrontation between rival artistic factions: liberals on the one hand, state-sponsored totalitarians on the other. (The poet Mayakovsky's career offers a microcosm of what was going on at this time.)

As for Shostakovich, his experimental period did not commence until after the First Symphony in 1926. His preceptors in "experiment" were not, however, Leninist but cynical conservative (and mainly literary) figures such as Bulgakov, Gogol, and Sollertinsky. In his contemporary letters to Tanya Glivenko, he makes sleighting references to "the Red Press" in connection with its reactions to his First Symphony, and confirms that he deplored Bezymensky's verses for his Second Symphony. There is no reason to assume that he had any serious political agenda (either way) in this work. Like the Third, it is a mixture of unease, slapstick, and scepticism. To have been more explicit in any of this at the time (supposing such a desire on his part existed) would have been very dangerous to Shostakovich, particularly in the case of the Third Symphony, written at the height of the Soviet Cultural Revolution.

Until we have a clearer picture of the cultural scene in the USSR during 1924-32, judging Shostakovich's state of mind in any of his music of the period must be a speculative business. Even so there is already sufficient evidence to suggest that his Second and Third symphonies are far more complex and ambivalent than has so far been generally assumed.

Re: Symphony No 11
October 6th 1995 et seq.

Correspondents disagreed over whether the Eleventh Symphony was about the 1905 Revolution or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. M Panes wrote: "Given the use of prison songs, it's a rather seditious story! Some may say it sounds like 'movie music', but I think it's more accurate to say it sounds like a movie. It doesn't accompany images as much as embody them... Shostakovich was no snob - there aren't complex musical techniques to impress here, but something much more precious and rarer: something to say." Absolutely! Of the "story" itself, Bob Groves wrote: "Shostakovich was of the habit of masking his personal allusions behind public 'themes', and it would appear that 'The Year 1905' has as much to do with the events of '56 as the abortive Russian uprising of the turn of the century. Certainly the quotes of revolutionary songs have an ambiguity that could refer to more contemporary events."

Other contributors took issue with this, insisting that Shostakovich was merely commemorating a period of (pre-Bolshevik) revolutionary idealism of which he still approved in 1957. Rajesh Malik, for example, wrote: "I see no irony here as in other Shostakovich works. Nothing is hidden behind musical notes. Shostakovich, like many noncommunists, sympathized with the plight of the Russian masses before the 1917 revolution and Symphony 11 is DSCH's commemoration of those emotional moments." Rolf Strom-Olsen countered as follows: "I cannot agree with this. The Eleventh is not at all about the events of 1905. The subtitle is simply a jab (sic) to the Soviet authorities and musicologues. If anything, it is about Hungary in '56. Further, I don't see Shostakovich as having much that draws him to the plight of the masses. His is an intensely personal subjection and betrayal, and all of his symphonies testify to that theme. DSCH may have been interested in revolutionary ideas prior to the Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth, but after that, I think any connexion was lost."

In fact, the 1956 Hungarian link was made at once by many of the members of Shostakovich's liberal intellectual audience in Soviet Russia. Lev Lebedinsky, who was close to Shostakovich around the time of the symphony's composition, contended (Novy Mir, 1990) that the work was not about 1905 but about 1956: "The true - and highly contemporary - programme of the Eleventh Symphony was deliberately concealed by Shostakovich behind a kind of period 'costume'. It can justly be called a product of the anti-totalitarian liberation movement in the USSR." Later, in Pravda, the composer Yuri Levitin attacked Lebedinsky for presenting a "one-dimensional" picture of the Eleventh, claiming that his view of the work "vulgarised" it. The critic Lev Mazel (Sovetskaya Muzika, 1991) suggested a compromise. He had, he said, been aware of the Hungarian resonances of the Eleventh from the first moment he heard it; but to say that it was entirely concerned with 1956 and nothing to do with 1905 was to deprive it of its rich associations: "The programme of the work is openly historical; only the style is contemporary. Yet it was, at the same time, inspired by contemporary events - and it is arguably this inspiration which gives the symphony its true meaning and substance."

Recently an authoritative confirmation of the double-meaning of the Eleventh was published by Elizabeth Wilson in her Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Here, Zoya Tomashevskaya claims that the choreographer Igor Belsky, who produced a ballet on the Eleventh Symphony at the Leningrad Malyi Theatre in 1966, told her that Shostakovich had said to him in passing: "Don't forget that I wrote that symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising." At the very least, then, it seems that Mazel is right: the work has two levels: an allegory on the 1905 Revolution using old prison songs as symbols - and a "masked" reference to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

As for its 1905 symbolism, it is important to remember that 1956 was also the year of Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and the mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. (According to the composer's son Maxim, many ex-zeks stayed at the Shostakovich family apartment on their way back from the camps.) The symphony's collage of famous songs would have spoken vividly to Shostakovich's sympathetic audience inasmuch as their words were well-known to all Russians. Interviewed by Irina Nikolska, the musicologist Marina Sabynina has observed of the Eleventh that its third movement "could be associated with the mass executions of the Soviet era and Stalin's reprisals, while the first part, with its melodies of pre-revolutionary songs of hard labour and exile, recalls the victims of the Gulag - the millions who perished in concentration camps and prisons". Much of the symbolic "dialectic" of the Eleventh Symphony is lost on a foreign audience, yet the work's ghostly gestures towards the future - not only to 1956 but, in the closing minutes of the finale, to October 1917 - are surely intelligible to anyone with sensitivity and a little knowledge of Russian history?

Hiroyuki Tanaka votes Kondrashin's recording of the Eleventh as the best. It's certainly in the top three, but I would suggest that Mravinsky had the edge over Kondrashin in this work. His 1960 studio version for Melodiya (presently unavailable on CD) is uniquely overwhelming and arguably the single most urgently required reissue in the Shostakovich discography. A live version of Mravinsky's interpretation made in Prague in 1967 is the second best choice at present (Praga PR 254018). I agree with Mr Tanaka that Haitink is "too cool" - but I would say that of his entire cycle, which was recorded before the post-Testimony revised view of Shostakovich.

Mahler and DSCH
September 12th 1995

John-Michael Albert writes: "I am unaware of a single instance in which DSCH ever quoted Mahler in his music... So, how did DSCH come to know Mahler so well, and then how did DSCH come to let him influence his own philosophy of what a symphony is?"

Shostakovich was introduced to Mahler in the late Twenties by Ivan Sollertinsky. The impact was huge - indeed, Shostakovich's passion for the composer was so great that his friends (and enemies) on the Soviet music scene in the early Thirties jokingly referred to his prolonged attack of "mahleria". The closest Shostakovich comes to quoting Mahler directly is in some of his film scores. There are, for example, fairly close allusions to Mahler's Third in the soundtracks to Pirogov and The Young Guard, both written in 1947. The sequence "Dresden in Ruins" from the film Five Days and Five Nights (1960) likewise suggests that the trumpet fanfares in the opening movement of the Eleventh Symphony may derive, albeit distantly, from the fanfares in the opening movement of Mahler's First. On the other hand, the high Cs on flute and violins before the agitated final section seem to have come from the introduction to the finale of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique! (Btw, those a.f.s.-ers who were recently counting Shostakovichian references to the Dies irae should listen closely hereabouts.)

There are lots of Mahlerisch bits in Shostakovich (I point out some of these in The New Shostakovich), but mainly, I think, the influence was one of personality and method. Mahler's symphonism, with its many solo passages, is essentially theatrical: his instruments are characters in an ongoing symphony-drama. Moreover, Mahler's drama anticipates Shostakovich's in its radical juxtaposition of irony and pathos, satire and tragedy. Another important ingredient of Mahler's music which Shostakovich must have seized on with gratitude was the former's incorporation into the symphonic language of banality, street music, and the "low" in life and art. Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a key work here, and one can hear echoes of it in Shostakovich's 1941 King Lear music, as well as (in more generalised form) in From Jewish Folk Poetry.

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