Tuesday, April 19, 2011

album of the day: Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

It's always precarious to write about music as expressing ideas. Especially in the case of a symphony, which is really just a series of notes, and especially in the case of Shostakovich's Fifth, which is not only just a series of notes, but a series of notes he wrote in an attempt to continue his composing career and not, you know, get executed by Stalin.

I forget exactly how I got hooked on Shostakovich. I suspect my friend Bob is to blame. The Fifth Symphony is the first piece I knew, and it was so compelling, I immediately went after all the Shostakovich I could.

I won't go into the details of the history of his composing it here. There's a good piece on it on Wikipedia.

This afternoon, I listened to the first two movements the symphony on the way home from campus, and could barely contain myself. I've continued it since then. I can't provide a perfectly rational basis for this claim, but I'm happy with it: this symphony is about the horror of power. The first movement, for instance, expresses the terrifying potential of power - political power, most of all - to make things happen, to cause things to occur. If I have to explain to you why this is a horrible power, you may already not be a good audience for the symphony. But if you have an inkling, give Shostakovich a listen, so he can explain to you just how horrible power can be.

After being terrified nearly to tears by the first movement (walking down Andre in Turlock, and passing a few fellow pedestrians who gave me very concerned looks), I hit the tragedy of the second movement. Officially, the second movement was a bit of fun, a comic interlude in an otherwise extraordinarily bleak symphony. Bullshit. The second movement takes a Russian folk theme, played in quiet, meek tones on woodwinds and pizzicato violins, and then refracts that theme as an appropriated melody blasted back at the folk by a militaristic march. Their theme expressing life and its sanctity and fragility is twisted into a monstrous anthem, presented back to them as though the people were expected to accept this as the authentic representation of their culture and lives. There's nothing silly or relieving about the comedy of it: it's the harshest satire. My boy Shostie could write some friggin satire.

There follows the third movement, quoting a suppressed - no, an overtly banned - traditional funeral dirge, and which apparently made the premiere audience weep. Nuff said. The fourth movement, in my opinion, expresses the triumph of power, the final obliteration of the life of the folk, as all the themes ultimately contribute to what I am sure in my soul is a mock-heroic climax. The tension Shostakovich achieves in the last phrases of the fourth movement, the clashing cymbals and blaring horns over the straining strings - that's the sound it might make when hope dies.

I mean, imagine you're a creative artist with a quirky sense of humor and a spirit of adventure, and that the work you are compelled to create is making people want to kill you and your friends. Imagine that after your last premiere, people started publishing reviews that said, basically, "yep, time to kill this motherfucker," and that at the same moment, your friends started disappearing. Then they come to you and say, "when's your next piece coming out? We're really interested!"

The awful genius of Shostakovich, in this symphony, was to give those people something they had to accept, even laud, and at the same time, express himself genuinely, and say something about, to, and for the people under this tyranny. Jesus, no wonder they wept!

In Mstislav Rostropovich's direction, this London Symphony recording does some amazing things, I should say. I am most familiar with an old Allegro classical cassette I bought in 1984, for fuck's sake, and that's my basic frame of reference for any other performance - as these things always go. Rostropovich's first movement is way goddamn scarier, and in fact one of scariest performances of classical music I've heard. (You may need to be in the mood, and may need to be familiar with the Fifth, to get this.) But it was the second movement that nailed me. Rostropovich leads the London gang to such a tender expression of the initial themes, and through such a miserable plundering of the same themes, that the connection between them is devastating.

I bought this on iTunes, and because of that, hadn't really regarded the cover art. Nice summation.

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