About this Recording
8.574031 - SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Songs and Romances (Gritskova, Prinz)
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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Songs and Romances

 

The songs on this album trace Dmitry Shostakovich’s musical career from lighthearted early experiments to his late work, and in doing so they reflect the tragic inflection points in his biography occasioned by politics. In the mid- 1930s, Shostakovich had made a name for himself as a promising young champion of Soviet new music. But after the sensational success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and before the Fourth Symphony was premiered, he was hit by Stalin’s denunciation. The opera was judged to be ‘muddle instead of music’, and Shostakovich was never again able to write what he pleased without some degree of ambiguity. Threatened with persecution and banishment more than once, he had to learn to ‘write between the lines’ from that point on, something he managed particularly well in the intimate genre of the song. Here, too, he practised the art of framing things in such a way that it was possible to read between the lines, and the songs’ personal biographical or indeed political significance can only be decoded when you look twice.

2 Fables of Krylov, Op. 4 – No. 1. Strekoza i Muravey (‘The Dragonfly and the Ant’) – Allegro

Russia’s La Fontaine Ivan Krylov’s fables had already afforded the young composer that blend of irony and depth that so often characterises his music. The dragonfly’s petition in the middle of Op. 4, No. 1 suddenly sounds like The Innkeeper’s Song in Boris Godunov and contrasts with the song’s cabaret-like tone.

6 Romances by Japanese Poets, Op. 21a

The 6 Romances by Japanese Poets date from the time when Shostakovich was working on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and was still carefree and full of optimism about future progress. They are dedicated to his wife-to-be, Nina Varzar, and his settings of the texts—which, for all their erotic overtones, reflect metaphysical ideas—are correspondingly passionate, couched in the same direct, spare, avant-garde tone as the opera. The first of the songs on this album already talks about thoughts of suicide, the second is about parting and melancholy recollections.

Never again did the composer stray as far from the folk song idiom demanded by Socialist Realism to write true art songs, but he did later find more subtle opportunities for musical ‘subversion’.

2 Romances on Verses of Lermontov, Op. 84

Throughout Shostakovich’s artistic life, Mikhail Lermontov’s poetry was his constant companion, and he mulled over plans for operas based on Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Masquerade with the great theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was brutally murdered by the authorities.

The Romances show Shostakovich’s romantic side in the ondine ballad with its seductive mermaid songs and dramatic turns for the worse in a tale of deadly seduction, and to an even greater extent in the gentle eroticism of Morning in the Caucasus.

6 Songs on Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva, Op. 143 – No. 2. Otkuda takaya nezhnost (‘Whence comes such tenderness?’)

The introverted, ‘between the lines’ art of Shostakovich’s late period picks up on the lyricism of the Lermontov songs to conjure up hallucinatory soundscapes to accompany Tsvetayeva’s enigmatic lines. Are those birds peacefully carolling, or military signals confused and transformed by a dream? Is that a funeral march that the staccato basses mysteriously strike up towards the end? Does it anticipate the funeral cortège in song No. 5 that follows?

Each time the question ‘Whence comes such tenderness?’ recurs, the vocal line insists on a phrase leaning towards F minor that also plays a decisive role at the climax of the finale of the Fifth Symphony and later also in the Seventh, while the piano keeps introducing fresh harmonies. D flat major and A major are heard, seeming to bring calm—poetic ambiguity in this unreal sound space.

6 Songs of Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva, Op. 143 – No. 5. Net, bil baraban … (‘No, the drum was beating’)
4 Romances on Poems of Pushkin, Op. 46 – No. 1. Vozrozhdeniye (‘Rebirth’) – Moderato

The bizarre funeral cortège in No, the drum was beating relates to the death of Alexander Pushkin and Tsar Nicholas I’s relationship to him. Shostakovich set four of the poet’s Romances to music in the winter of 1936–37 as a tribute to mark the centenary of his death. They reflect Shostakovich’s withdrawal from the world at times when he was persecuted and excluded by the Soviet regime. In the poem Rebirth, he found consolation in the passage that speaks of how even the thickest coat of black paint designed to hide a painting from view will wear off over the years, and the original artwork will reappear—a dream of reversible eradication.

6 Romances on Verses of British Poets, Op. 62

In 1942, even a Soviet composer was permitted to take an interest in Western poetry—especially if it was part of the literature of an allied country. Great Britain was one of the Allies in the war against Hitler.

No censor could guess what Shostakovich was thinking when he set the dark words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 66 to music. For the composer, Shakespeare’s language was already music: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I abandon myself to the powerful current of the words’, he once said.

From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79

Over a number of years, Shostakovich made a detailed study of Jewish folk music. On the one hand, he knew the song cycles of his friend and colleague Mieczysław Weinberg, which set Jewish texts. On the other, in the 1940s he completed and orchestrated his student Benjamin Fleischmann’s opera Skripka Rothschilda—a work which employed harmonic and melodic features belonging to the Jewish folk idiom—after Fleischmann was killed during the war. In addition, in 1944, one of the students at the Moscow Conservatory, where Shostakovich was teaching, published a dissertation on Jewish folk music which contained a large number of musical examples. A good number of Jewish elements in works like the First Violin Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet, the Second Piano Trio and Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ rest on these foundations.

With associations such as these, Shostakovich was venturing onto sensitive ground; antisemitism was, at times, rampant in the Soviet Union. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Shostakovich included in the cycle a poem that contains an unambiguous nod to the Party and its work to benefit society, even the Jews!

The two songs Margarita Gritskova has chosen for her album are among the more folkloristic numbers in the sequence, even if Lullaby is about the terror Jewish citizens were subjected to under the Tsar.

Even concessions to the Soviet regime were of little use in this instance, however. Although From Jewish Folk Poetry was written in 1948, it could not be premiered until 1955 and was first published in a German edition, before being added to the Russian State imprint’s catalogue in 1961.

Greek Songs
Spanish Songs, Op. 100

The southern European folk song texts selected by Shostakovich also reflect issues that were important to him; alongside the laments of a rejected lover and mischievous reinventions of classical pastoral poetry there are barely concealed messages about the oppression and expulsions that were the order of the day in Stalin’s ‘workers’ and peasants’ paradise’.

Satires, ‘Pictures of the Past’, Op. 109

A spirit of subversion also pervades the poems of Sasha Chorny, whose satirical, often mordantly critical poetry had a key role for Dmitry Shostakovich. Time and again he quotes lines from Chorny’s poems in his Memoirs to refer to the part he himself played, noting at one point, for example: ‘Don’t pawn your soul for a pair of trousers, let your soul run around without.

In Stalin’s Russia, poetry had become an object of suspicion. When setting Chorny’s prosaically inscrutable reworking of Romantic poetry about spring, Shostakovich quotes Rachmaninov’s popular Vesenniye vodi (‘Spring Waters’).

Preface to the Complete Edition of my Works and a Brief Reflection apropos of this Preface, Op. 123

In 1966 Shostakovich wrote a bitterly cynical self-parody about his career as a member of the Soviet cultural nomenclatura, very much in the spirit of the ambiguous sarcasm of the Chorny Satires. His setting of the text left no doubt about its satirical intentions. A soul was running around without any trousers and knew it—and owned up!

Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145 – XI. Bessmertie (‘Immortality’)
(Epitaph for Cecchino Bracci Fiorentino, 1528–1544, Epigrams 14 and 12) – Allegretto

The profound poetry of the great artist Michelangelo Buonarroti concludes Shostakovich’s song compositions. In 1974 he published, as his Op. 145, a Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Its finale reflects on the notion of immortality. At times during his life, Shostakovich had doubtless felt ‘buried alive’, but in his art he had forged for himself a life of dignity. Now he took leave of it with a repeated chord of F sharp major dying away over the course of seven bars.

Wilhelm Sinkovicz
English translation: Susan Baxter


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