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8.550631 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 14
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.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
As early as 1936 Benjamin Britten had been impressed by the music of Shostakovich, a concert performance of whose Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District he reviewed in that year. In 1960 he met the Russian composer, during the course of the latter's visit to London for the first performance there of his first Cello Concerto. The friendship continued during Britten's visits to Russia in subsequent years and led directly, in 1969, to the composition of the Fourteenth Symphony of Shostakovich, a work that he dedicated to Britten. The work is scored for an orchestra often violins, four violas, three cellos and two five-string double basses, a percussion section of castanets, wooden blocks, tom-toms, whip, bells, vibraphone, xylophone and celesta and for soprano and bass soloists. In conception the symphony continues the vein of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death and consists of settings of poems that are concerned with early or unjust death.
The first two of the eleven poems treat texts by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot during the Civil War. De profundis, for bass, laments the hundred dead lovers sleeping in the dry earth by the long red roads of Andalusia: by the green olive-trees of Cordoba stand a hundred crosses lest we forget them. Malaguena, for soprano, tells how death goes in and out, horses black as night and dark souls screaming through the shadows of the guitar: death goes in and out. The third song is a setting for soprano and bass of a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire after the German romantic poet Clemens Brentano, collaborator in Mahler's beloved Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The Loreley herself, a creature in the guise of a beautiful woman, lured men to their death on the rocky promontory by the Rhine where she sat. The creation of Brentano in his Die Loreley, the legend was perpetuated by Heine in Die Loreley and further by Eichendorff for whom she is a witch. The poem by Apollinaire tells how men are enchanted by the witch. The bishop asks her what sorcerer has led her to evil, but she tells him to let her die, since her glance is cursed, luring men to their doom, her eyes terrible flames: she must burn at the stake. The bishop, however, cannot condemn her, since his heart is aflame with love for her, but she bids him do so, since her beloved has left her and the world is empty. The bishop tells three horsemen to seize her and bring her into a convent, where she can repent and find peace in prayer. The Lorelei seeks to see once again from her rock her beloved's castle and his reflection, before she enters the cloister. Her hair flies in the wind and the horsemen cry "Lorelei, back! Lorelei, back!". She sees a boat and in it her beloved, who signs to her to come: the Lorelei plunges into the water, where her beauty is seen now through the flowing water.
The Suicide, a second setting of Apollinaire, is introduced by a cello solo. The soprano sings of the three lilies that deck the modest grave, with no cross, gently resplendent when the night-dark clouds drench them with rain, towering in lonely beauty with the pride of a royal sceptre, one growing from the wounds, one from the lonely heart, now eaten by the worms, the third from the mouth. The three lilies flower on the grave, their beauty cursed, like the fate that gave the dead one so short a life. There follows the first of a pair of poems by Apollinaire, the first, for soprano, introduced by the xylophone. He must die this evening in the trenches, my little soldier, whose tired eyes seek only the defence of fame, dead for fame alone, and since he must die, I shall be beautiful and bright flames shall shine on my breast: my look will melt snow-clad heights and my girdle will be like the line of trench-diggers: in deep sin as in death, I will be beautiful, since he must die, in the grave there alone. Evening bellows, like black cattle, roses burn and blue wings bewitch my eyes, the hour of love strikes and fever-hot embrace, the hour of death's sickle, a last greeting: so he will die today, like the dark roses, my little soldier, my brother, my happiness. The second poem of Les attentives, for soprano and bass, begins over an opening sustained string chord. The bass, with the word soft he dead lover, reminds the woman of her loss. It is a small thing, the soprano sings, only my heart that I once gave and took it back again, such is life: the lay there in the trenches and I laugh aloud that love has gone there to its death.
The seventh song, a setting of Apollinaire's At the Sante entrusted to the bass, opens with an ascending and descending scale pattern from cellos and double basses. They dragged me out, the bass sings, and shut me in prison: fate waited at my door and I alone in the darkness: where are you friends, your singing and red-lipped girls: here the grave arches over me, here there waits only death. No, I am not here as I was born: here I am only Number Fifteen, for ever lost: I go to the grave like a bear to the ring. Why, O God! You know my pain, that you have given me: pity my sorrow: take from me the crown of thorns and let my spirit not despair. Evening draws near, and sudden light banishes darkness. In the stillness here, alone in my cell, I myself and my clearer understanding.
The eighth song, again a setting of Apollinaire, recalls an event in earlier Russian history. Strident chords lead to the bass defiance of the Sultan: You that are baser than Barabbas and horned like a dragon of Hell: Beelzebub is your friend and you eat nothing but dirt and filth: your Sabbath is abominable to us: you rotting corpse from Salonica, blood-stained, senseless dream, your eyes pierced by pikes. Hangman, you dream of pain, scars and wounds, pustulent, mare's arse, pig's snout! May every medicine only foment plague and leprosy in your bones!
The virulent abuse of the preceding song is followed by the only Russian poem set, Wilhelm Küchelbeker's O Delvig, Delvig! Küchelbeker himself was born in 1797 and was a close friend and school-fellow of Pushkin. He took part in the December rising of 1825 and was exiled to Siberia. Baron Anton Antonovich Delvig, who died in 1831, was a year younger than Küchelbeker and was a leading member of Pushkin's circle. The song asks what reward an artist may expect, among villains and fools, castigating the power of tyrants and praising the immortality of brave deeds and art that loves freedom. The poem, meditative in its position in the whole symphony, has a marked contemporary relevance.
The two remaining songs are settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The first, Der Tod des Dichters, The Poet's Death, starts with a muted violin in the highest register of the instrument, before the entry of the soprano. He lay, his face set pale on the piled cushions, the world and his knowledge of it torn from his senses: those who saw him alive did not know how at one he was with all this: this deep darkness, these meadows, this water, these were his face and the mask he wears is like the inside of a fruit that perishes in the air. The elegiac sadness is broken by the sound of wood block and castanet, as the two singers join in a final poem by Rilke: Death is great and we are his to mock: when we think ourselves in the midst of life, he dares to weep among us. The conclusion is brief, sardonic and very final.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
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