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8.550630 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 13, 'Babi Yar'
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op. 113, is in many ways a counterweight to its immediate predecessor, The Year 1917, a work more calculated to win official approval. By 1962 various changes had taken place in Russia, with Khrushchev's attacks on Stalin, who had died in 1953. Khrushchev himself was ousted in 1963 and replaced by the more repressive government led by Brezhnev and Kosygin. Nevertheless even under Khrushchev art was by no means free of the restrictive formulae that had bound it under Stalin, coupled with the whim of the dictator. Symphony No.13 began with the setting by Shostakovich of a single poem by the Ukrainian poet Yevtushenko, the son of parents exiled to Siberia and at this time a representative of the culture of the younger generation of Russians. In the controversial poem Babi Yar he had attacked antisemitism, which had recurred in a particularly open form during the last period of Stalin's rule and which was, in any case, endemic in Russia. By implication the poem attacked the cruel treatment of all minorities or dissidents, of whom Jews might be seen as representative. The symphony was extended at the poet's suggestion, by the addition of settings of four more poems, one of them, Fears, specially written.
The performance of the symphony, which took place on 18th December 1962 in Moscow under Kyril Kondrashin, was no easy matter. Yevtushenko's poem had already been subject to official criticism. It was suggested that other victims of the war should be included in the lament for Babi Yar and that, in a word, the poem was unpatriotic. By December Stalinists in the establishment had done their utmost to prevent the performance of the symphony. Bass soloists were forced to withdraw and every device of official disapproval was attempted, although overt banning of either poem or symphony would have been politically unwise, in view of the reputation that both poet and composer now enjoyed outside Russia. The symphony was performed on two occasions, before the direct intervention of the official censors, which removed the work from Russian repertory for the next decade. It was first performed in the West in 1970 in Philadelphia under Eugene Ormandy.
Babi Yar is a ravine near the centre of Kiev, where 150,000 men, women and children, mainly Jews, were slaughtered under the Nazis, who occupied the region for two years during the war. In his poem Yevtushenko identifies himself with the Jew through the ages, with Christ on the cross, with Dreyfus, with Ann Frank, deploring the antisemitism of which Russia too has been guilty and declaring himself, as an enemy of this persecution, a true Russian. The symphony uses a large orchestra, bass soloist and chorus of up to a hundred basses. It opens with a sombre B flat minor setting of the title poem, simple and tragic in utterance, and demonstrating the influence of Mussorgsky, whose Songs and Dances of Death Shostakovich had orchestrated and on whose Khovanshchina he had recently been working. Tension mounts as the brutal killing of a boy in Bielostok by drunken Russians is recalled, followed by a return of the dark-hued Adagio, a lament for Russian antisemitism. The tragic story of Anne Frank is recalled and a strong orchestral climax leads to the final threnody and the soloist's self-identification with each old man, each child shot at Babi Yar. There is no Jewish blood in my blood, the poet declares, but I carry a loathsome hatred of all antisemites as if I were a Jew, and hence I am a true Russian.
The setting of the poem Humour serves as a symphonic scherzo. The text tells of the cunning and elusive nature of humour that tsars and emperors could not command, outclassed by the vagrant Aesop or by the simple wit of the Sufic Nasreddin Hodja. The head might be chopped off and set on a pike, but he would survive; he might be a political prisoner, but soon he would be out through the stone walls and bars. The contemporary meaning of the words is clear enough. The setting in C major, to which the third and fourth bars provide immediate contrast, is jaunty, pointed and allusive.
At the Store celebrates the patient heroism of women, waiting in a queue to buy food, clutching hard-earned money in hands that have mixed cement, ploughed, reaped and endured everything. Cellos and double basses open the E minor movement, which is for the most part lightly scored until the dynamic climax, as the poet declares that it is shameful to deceive these women, to give them short change or short weight.
Fears lists the terrors of life, the fear of anonymous denunciation, of the secret knock at the door, of speaking to foreigners, of speaking even to one's own wife. The hardships of labour and battle were nothing, but men were afraid to talk even to themselves. There are, though, new fears ahead, fears of being untrue to one's country, of betraying the clear truth, of distrusting others and overtrusting oneself, and, for the poet, of not writing with all his strength. The movement is linked to that which precedes it by a sustained note, now enharmonically changed from G sharp to A flat. A muffled drum roll, the sound of the gong and a tuba solo are succeeded by the continuation of the cello and double bass melodic line of the previous movement, before the chorus declares on a solemn and menacing monotone that fears are dying in Russia, and the bass soloist goes on to recall the ubiquitous and sinister fears that once held sway. A brief march allows the chorus to sing of physical hardships bravely endured, while the new fears are introduced by the scurrying violas, leading to a dynamic climax. The sound of the bell returns to the mood of the opening.
A sustained B flat joins the fourth to the filth movement, the two flutes that declare the opening melody soon joined by the oboe and other woodwind instruments, before the strings take their turn. A bassoon solo introduces the bass soloist singing praise of the folly of Galileo, while a contemporary kept his position by denying what he knew to be true. Galileo faced the truth alone and was a true career-man, with a great career like those of Shakespeare, Pasteur, Newton or Tolstoy: those who cursed are forgotten, but those who were cursed are remembered. These men will be an example to him and he will follow his own career by not following it. The symphony ends with the material of the opening of the movement restated in gentle and yet satirical summary by solo violin and viola, accompanied by the strings, followed by the celesta, an instrument that with the bells and harp provides a final dissident A flat to the B flat major chord of the accompanying strings.
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus
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