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David Dalle
Thursday April 13th, 2017 with David Dalle
The Passion of Shostakovich: Shostakovich's 5th symphony and the birth of a secret dissident.

Today we find ourselves in Leningrad, 1937. It has been a year since Shostakovich was denounced and made a pariah on Stalin’s instructions. It has also been a year since Stalin’s Great Terror began and continued to grind hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, particularly Soviet Poles and other national minorities and the intelligentsia. By 1938, in just 2 years, over 700,000 will have been summarily executed with a bullet in the back of the neck and countless more sent to labour (and often die) in Siberian Gulags. Leningrad was particularly hard hit: “there was only the fear of the knock on the door in the early morning, and the sight of the prison truck: called the black maria, or the soul destroyer, or by Poles the black raven. As one Pole remembered, people went to bed each night not knowing whether they would be awakened by the sun or the black raven.” (Snyder) By 1937, Shostakovich had lost family members, friends, and colleagues, some of them exiled to Siberia, some of them shot. Shostakovich had every reason to fear being arrested as well. His fame as a composer was poor protection. For example, many of Shostakovich’s most well-known music in the Soviet Union in the mid-30’s was film music and songs: one of his songs from a 1932 film became an enormous hit and was sung by peasants and government leaders. His colleague on the song, the poet Boris Kornilov who penned the lyrics was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938. The severe level of persistant fear which Shostakovich lived with daily during these years cannot be underestimated. The years from 1936 until Stalin’s death in 1953 were profoundly traumatic for Shostakovich (as indeed they were for everyone in the Soviet Union!) and they deeply impacted the rest of his life. In this background of intense, constant fear and insecurity, Shostakovich composed his 5th symphony quickly in the spring and early summer. The work is smaller and less complex than the 4th, and has a more overtly optimistic finale (at least in comparison to the pessimism of the 4th). All features which would make it more acceptable politically than the 4th symphony which he had withdrawn before its premiere. The 5th symphony received its premiere in Leningrad in November 1937 and was an enormous success receiving thunderous ovation for half an hour. There are many reminisences from those who attended performances of the 5th, given years later when it was more safe to do so, that audiences reacted to the music as an expression of suffering and grief that they were all living with under the Great Terror, the long heart-wrenching Largo in particular, a requiem for everyone. “The success of the fifth symphony could be seen as a protest of the intelligentsia that had not yet been destroyed, those who were not yet exiled or executed. The symphony could be interpreted as an expression of his attitude to the horrible reality” (Admoni). For many of Shostakovich’s compatriots, the 5th symphony was the birth of Shostakovich as a secret dissident with much of his music, including the 5th symphony, containing hidden meanings contradicting official reception of his music, though many could not voice their beliefs publically until after the Soviet Union collapsed. “Pragmatically, what mattered most for Shostakovich was the official reaction, and it was slow in coming, “hinting that Stalin was deliberating. In the end, the official reaction turned out extremely positive. In a rare occurrence for Shostakovich, the popular acclaim was matched by official acclaim. However, the official line was completely at odds with the private reactions of the public, interpreting the work as Shostakovich’s rehabilitation and the symphony as the optimistic victory of the Soviet personality. There was even an article “signed” by Shostakovich in the official Moscow Soviet paper entitled “My Creative Answer” where ‘he’ wrote that the fifth symphony was “a constructive creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism”. The official interpretation seems ridiculous and particularly bizarre when put next to the music. But this has contributed to a deep schism in Shostakovich criticism. In the decades after the premiere of the 5th symphony, many Western critics and artists took Shostakovich at face-value, without any real insight into the reality of actually living in Stalin’s USSR. Many Western sources even subtitled the 5th symphony as “a constructive creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism” long after it was abandoned by Soviet sources. I believe Shostakovich as a secret dissident (and sometimes much less secret in his later years) is still an idea which is too often dismissed English-speaking and particularly American musicologists. I find that some American musicologists born after WWII, and who have lived in the most materially comfortable society in human history, seem incapable of appreciating the hellish experience of many Soviets living under Stalin. To not really be able to grasp the impact of that pervasive fear and paranoia, and their idea of dissidence is perhaps coloured too much by Hollywood fantasies. It is too easy to accuse Shostakovich of cowardice from the distant comfort and luxury of a comfy Californian sofa in the 1990’s!” With all this context, I have chosen a famous, yet perhaps ironic recording of the 5th: Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein, though a champion of Shostakovich’s music, could not know anything about the secret life of Shostakovich and the 5th symphony in 1959 America. He takes the work at face value, and it is an amazing performance. Quite different from more recent recordings which emphasize the darker ambivalence, particularly of the “optmistic”(!) finale. Finally, today is the Thursday-before-Good Friday, for which I traditionally program music at least tangentially related to the Passion story. Today it is a bit of a stretch, but some critics and musicians have seen the 5th symphony as having allusions to the Passion of Christ, Shostakovich seeing his own martyrdom expressed in this work “Three images relating to Golgotha—the procession to execution, the mockery of the crowd, self-sacrifice—were first embodied in Shostakovich’s work, with such conviction, in the Fifth Symphony. The autiobiographical nature of these motifs is self-evident. Shostakovich had experienced the pain of public condemnation, the betrayal of friends, and the jibes of bystanders. After everything that happened to him in 1936, Shostakovich felt martyred.” (Volkov)
Symphony No. 5 in d Op. 47
Dmitri Shostakovich/New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein - Symphony No. 5 - Sony Classical
Zor intreats
Anonymous - Armenie 1: Chants liturgiques du Moyen Age et Musique Instrumentale - Ocora
Le Golgotha
Ensemble David - Liturgies Coptes - Institue du Monde Arabe
Taksim (mizmar)
Musicians of the Nile - Egypte - Ocora
Ensemble Roudaniyat - al-Hal - Zimbraz
Nizzagh Ijbal
Tinariwen - Elwan - Wedge/Anti New
Suren Hayrabetian, Serge Assadrian, Khatchatur Meguerditchian - Armenie 1: Chants liturgiques du Moyen Age et Musique Instrumentale - Ocora
Amen Hayr Sourp
Anonymous - Armenie 1: Chants liturgiques du Moyen Age et Musique Instrumentale - Ocora
Amen Hayr Sourp
Levon Minassian & Armand Amar - Songs from a world apart - Long Distance
St. John Passion BWV 245 xxxv: Zerfliesse mein herze
Johann Sebastien Bach/Nancy Argenta, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner - St. John Passion - Arkiv
Interactive CKCU