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Okay.  So imagine your Josef Stalin.  You probably do that all the time, anyway, like me.  

So you're Josef Stalin, it's 1936, and after a hard day at the Kremlin starving uppity districts and purging intellectuals, you dress up and take your mom to the opera because she's been bugging you about how you never call.  And what do you know, they have a premiere of a new opera by some schmo named Dmitri Shostakovich!  Swell.  

And then you see this:

Lady Macbeth of Mtsinsk by Dmitri Shostakovich, scene from Act 2, Tomlinson and Ventris

And you think, Ecchhh...  You glance under your brow at your mom, whose eyes are bugging out.  God, this is awkward.  I brought my mom!  You tap your fingers on the armrest and think, heads are going to roll for this.  And then you both get up and walk out.

Not a good day to be Dmitri Shostakovich!

When trying to choose the right Shostakovitch work to cover for a diary on him, I had a number of good works in mind.  I was inclined to go with my favorite work, his first symphony.  But any extended discussion of Shostakovich and his music ends up centering around the events before and after his masterpiece Symphony #5, which is his most successful and most popular work, if we judge by the number of recordings and radio airtime it gets.

And by how many rock bands sample it.  For instance, Morrissey's The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils, with a Shostakovich 5th sample in the background.

And by how many cheap '50s science fiction B-flicks used it as the film score.

The Brain Eaters(1958)

Just think.  Shostakovich could have sued for copyright infringement!  The symphony was only 21 years old at that point.  Hey.  Leonard Nimoy was in Brain Eaters.  Cool.

... But back to Shostakovich and the aftermath of Lady Macbeth.

Shostakovich's opera closed very quietly that night.  (Yes, I made up the part about Stalin bringing his mom.  Poetic license.  Sue me.)  A week later, an article in Pravda condemned Lady Macbeth as "crude, primitive, and vulgar," which isn't really very far from the mark, although I would take exception to the "primitive" part.  As if the ugly bedroom sex scene, which includes shaking set scenery, weren't crude enough, Shostakovich has trombones playing slide glissandos (like a slide-whistle) in imitation of sexual intercourse, the final glissando sounding like -- what? -- a deflating male member?  It was too much.  Lady Macbeth was banned in the USSR for about thirty years, and only then allowed back with massive cleaning up.  

Aside from the sexual content of this one opera, though, Shostakovich had long had problems with the Party critics.  His music was very dissonant and often cynical and not in keeping with the heroic style of socialist realism that the Communist Party approved of.  Still, his music was popular, including, yes, Lady Macbeth.  Until Stalin's walk-out.  

And then came his first of several official denunciations, which threatened to destroy not just him, but critics and friends who had praised him.  They recanted their praise in public articles in Pravda.  Shostakovich, who had a Symphony #4 ready to rehearse and perform, quietly withdrew it for his own safety and put it in a drawer to gather dust.  Lady Macbeth was not performed in the USSR again for thirty years, and only then after massive editing.  Shostakovich's written score for the Symphony #4 was lost in the turmoil of WWII, at first thought lost forever to the world, but later recreated from notes in 1960.

1936-1937 was the two year period of The Great Purge, a politically dangerous two year period of Soviet history which sought to purge Soviet society of not just dissidents but those in and out of government suspected of being less than fully enthusiastic about the regime.  Artists were not immune and often came under extra examination.  Maybe you can see the parallel with what had happened just a couple of years earlier in Nazi Germany, as we discussed in my previous diary on "Degenerate Art."  

Shostakovich's history is a long one of denunciations followed by rehabilitations.  His own personal politics and artistic views are somewhat obscured to us today by the enormous contradictions in his statements both in defiance and in apology, although his resentment at the Stalin era treatment is clear.

Other artists were not as successful at surviving.  For instance Mosolov.  I've been sitting on this bookmark for a while, waiting for a good opportunity to post it.  Here is Mosolov's  powerful 1926 composition, the Iron Foundry.

 The Iron Foundry by Alexander Mosolov, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Before I came across this, I had never heard of it, never heard of Mosolov.  It's great music, showing influences of Scriabin and Stravinsky.  Mosolov was denounced in 1936, as Shostakovich was, but with fewer friends to protect him, he was expelled from the Soviet Composer's Union and, shortly thereafter, imprisoned in the Gulag system.  After his later release, he resumed composing, but his style had changed to a simpler Russian folk music style that conformed to Soviet aesthetics.  No more Iron Foundries.

The Shostakovich Symphony #5 needs to be evaluated on its own as pure music, but the unavoidable context story to it is the story of his comeback attempt after the temporary artistic exile following the Stalin-Macbeth fuck up.  The ideal of socialist realism in art was art to honor the worker and the "heroes of labor."  Typically, this meant Beethoven's Fifth.  Or if we wanted to stay Russian, Tchaikovsky's Fourth.  Music that was too abstract in its methods was denounced as formalism and as bourgeois.  Common people should be able to appreciate it.

The funny thing to me is, the Shostakovich 5th, although adhering somewhat to the Beethoven 5th "triumph symphony" format, is not that simple at all.  Shostakovich's musical language, although always tonal, is chromatic and somewhat daunting to follow.  Make no mistake, his music is more traditional than that of Bartok or Schoenberg, but in being that tiny bit closer to tradition, we get the burden of having to make sense of it in our heads in traditional ways.  

Michael Tilson Thomas in this clip (which I discovered late) explains some of the context of the times of the Fifth as well as Shostakovich's style of chromatic tweaks.  It goes on in the succeeding clips to explain all four movements in greater depth than I can bring here.

Shostakovich Symphony #5 in D, First movement (clip 1), conducted by Leytush

Introduction (0:00 to 0:21)

This little introductory motif here can be broken into three parts that end up making the whole of this fifteen minute symphonic movement.  So I have labeled them in my clip above.  

The first part, the ta-DAAA, TA-daaa segment, we'll call it the Fatman motif, because, for whatever subconscious reason, it reminded me of a fat man with a cane trying to walk down stairs.  

The second segment, following that we'll call the Swirly motif, because it sounds, uh, swirly to me.  I could have used cap letter or Roman numerals, but the less formal approach is easier to follow.  If it seems silly, well, whatever; that's what we do here.

The third segment Dot-dot-dot... We'll call that dot-dot-dot.

As the Fatman motif sets up a steady background accompaniment, we can begin with the first theme of the exposition.

EXPOSITION First theme group(0:28 to 3:01)

With the Fatman motif in background, the first melody, somewhat sad, spins itself in the high violins.  It doesn't quite reach an end before the Introductory motif interrupts and resets us.  At 1:40, we hear the first theme starts over again, but now it is more ornamented, ornamented with the swirly motif.

At 3:01, the strings give way to the woodwinds with the beginning of a new, related theme.  The high strings play the Fatman motif as accompaniment to this new theme, which continues in the bass.  At 4:01, the new theme moves to the brass, as the strings reach shrill heights.

EXPOSITION Second theme (4:50 to end)

And now the mood relaxes.  The lower strings play a steady accompaniment based on a repeating dot-dot-dot motif.  The melody itself is in the high strings, long, graceful sweeps based on the Fatman theme.


Second clip, same movement

Everything has been somewhat slow, sad, somber, up until this point, and I wouldn't blame you much if you thought this was going to be a boring symphony, but now the real excitement begins, and we get to hear Shostakovich use the full orchestra.

DEVELOPMENT (0:00 to 3:38)

As the second theme trails off, the piano and brass join together to reannounce the first theme, the one that was slow, weak, ethereal the first time we heard it in the high strings at (0:28).  now it is sinister, filled with rhythmic power.  More brass enter atop it in the style of a fugue.  The tempo gradually speeds up.  The musical tension builds.

At 2:03, the climax.  The fugue gives way temporarily to a violent martial rendering of the first theme.  One that culiminates in a train wreck beginning at 2:58, as all the themes of the symphony overlap each other in a polyphonic cacophony at 3:38

RECAPITULATION (3:38 to 6:46)

The orchestra joins together in a unison bellowing statement of the first theme.  Michael Tilson Thomas calls this a lament, but to me, the contrast is between the strength of this statement of it and the weakness of it's first statement in the exposition.  It is angry and won't be ignored, angry enough to end the development in a firm and decisive manner.

The second theme returns at 4:48, played by the flute, in beautiful major key tranquility, an enormous contrast with what has gone before.

CODA (6:46)

A somber fragment of the second theme returns, first played by the flute, and then by a solo violin, to fade us out of the conclusion of the first movement.

If I could demand your attention span, and if I had more time and energy, I could go on to do the other three movements, but I'd rather let you listen to them on your own time.  The best movement, the one that will forever cement Shostakovich in my own mind, at least, as one of the unquestionably great musicians of the twentieth century, is the third movement.  However, it's difficult to approach it without going through the first two movements to set the tone and establish the material it uses.

But here's the rest of it.

Second movement

Third movement

Final movement

Next week:

If somebody else is doing a diary next week, remind me, because I can't remember right now.  Failing that, I will be back next week with the Barber Adagio.  

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Comment Preferences

  •  So D, is D your favorite key? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, commonmass, oysterface

    Thanks, always enjoy your diaries.

  •  Shosty's own ironic description (5+ / 0-)

    of the symphony is great too: "A Soviet Artist's Creative Response to Just Criticism."

    The symphony itself makes a statement, for that matter. The second movement is clearly a parody of a waltz. And the fourth movement ends with an extended, mock-triumphant coda, where the strings continually hammer on a high A over and over and over as if forced to do so, with one writer describing the effect as something like shouting, "Your business is rejoicing!"

  •  I've always enjoyed this work (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, commonmass, joanneleon, oysterface

    If you listen to Star Trek the original series, it seems like Alexander Courage absorbed more than a little Shostakovitch influences in the music for the show, especially the bits where the brass get featured.

    The third movement is one I remember from planetarium shows - good for depictions of alien, frozen landscapes.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:09:25 PM PDT

  •  you're sooo cool (5+ / 0-)


    Just say it: Medicare for All

    by anna shane on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:10:23 PM PDT

  •  Another Thursday, another (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, commonmass

    great Dumbo diary. But the tubes refuse to let me hear 10 minutes of YouTube without stuttering every 3 seconds for double that time. I will be back tomorrow in hopes the problem disappears.

    Thanks Dumbo.

  •  I absolutely love this (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, commonmass, oysterface

    symphony. The recording I have is of his son Maxim  conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  I also have a soft spot for the Symphonies 2, 3 and 13.

  •  duh DUH...duh DUH... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface, ThirtyFiveUp

    Wonderful diary on a great Symphony. I had the great fortune to study under Roman Ledenev in Moscow in the studio that Schostakovich had used when he was in Moscow. A near life-sized picture of the Master stared down at me. My fingers met the ivories that Schostakovich's met on the pianos there. I was never more intimidated in my entire life.

    Craft is what emerges when you hit inspiration over the head with a stick.

    by commonmass on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:30:02 PM PDT

  •  The opening thirty seconds of the fourth movement (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface

    are some of the most famous.

    Also, the folks at Disney brought Shostakovitch to the general public in Fantasia 2000 with the Piano Concerto.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:45:58 PM PDT

    •  This is embarrassing, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but I know I saw F2000.  I can't remember the Shostakovich piece.  MUST FIND...

      I did like the Firebird cartoon.  That's what I remember best from it.

      Ah here it is.  I'm getting old.  I have zero memory of having seen this.

      BTW, this is the kind of Shostakovich I like most, the energetic Shostakovich.  I hate most of his slow movements.

  •  Love Shostakovich (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface, aravir

    Symphonies, Piano Trios (the second is profound), and especially, for me, the string quartets. All of 'em.

    Thanks for a terrific diary.

    "Life is a bitch, and then you die. And then you come back." Old Buddhist proverb

    by RubDMC on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:51:23 PM PDT

  •  I really like his ballet "The Age of Gold" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface

    A nice propaganda piece for the USSR, but with great music.  Here's the first movement, which seems to be dedicated to gratuitous photos of Monica Belucci:

    And here's the polka, featuring a big contrabassoon solo:

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:52:38 PM PDT

    •  I must object to the first clip. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It didn't have enough Monica Bellucci.  Half way through it switched to some generic blonde who looks like she gives out the trophy at Nascar.  And who is not as interesting.  I was admiring the clip poster's taste up until then.

      I love the polka.  

      I've never been able to finger the connection between Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but there is one there, and I mean more than just them both being Russian.  But the polka definitely illuminates that.  Very Lt. Kije-ish.

  •  But my absolute favorite Shostakovitch is: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface

    The Festive Overture

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 07:55:01 PM PDT

  •  BTW, one of my earliest DK diaries.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface

    .....was about DSCH's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District here.  Were you going to mention the Carmen reference in the 1st movement?

    Of course, the whole story of the premiere of DSCH 5 is quite a tale in of itself, with Yevgeny Mravinsky waving the score over his head at the end, quite an act under the circumstances.

    "It's only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake." (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone)

    by chingchongchinaman on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 08:09:08 PM PDT

    •  The Carmen thing complicates matters. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oysterface, chingchongchinaman

      I think I've written better diaries, truthfully.  It's hard to manage all the material and obscure details and keep it readable.  I try to write these as if they are for somebody that has never heard of Shostakovich or Carmen before.

      I thought about it, though. :)

      Michael Tilson Thomas in the clip at the top pointed out another interesting comparison I hadn't thought of: the similarity of the da-DA da-DA to the beginning of Beethoven's 9th.

  •  In 2001 the Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    was devoted to the War Symphonies (I believe 4-9).  They also did Lady MacBeth.  The performance I went to had a delayed start, because Gergiev was barely able to make it back from New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

    It was during that or a subsequent festival I saw a Russian documentary on Stalin.  They showed a propaganda film clip of Stalin demonstrating his culture by attending a concert or opera.  Then they showed the same clip using the recently discovered unretouched original.  Good God, that man was ugly!  His nose could have been the model for the dark side of the moon.  I bet he was happy to have died before HiDef TV.

    Revenge is a dish best served on White House china.

    by RickBoston on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 08:21:03 PM PDT

  •  Passing thought on the Pravda article: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, oysterface

    I haven't read the original Russian, but I think by "primitive" they were specifically accusing it of being abrasive in a Stravinsky-RiteofSpring-like way rather than in the more common use of the word.  "Primitivism" was a branch of avant-garde modernism, very popular in early 20th century Russia, and composers like Prokofiev took a lot of heat for primitivistic compositions (like his early Scythian Suite.)

    Good diary, as always.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 11:10:46 PM PDT

    •  Oh, forgot to make the obvious point: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      so yeah, primitivism got packaged together with other 'decadent' pre-revolutionary aesthetic tendencies, all interpreted in opposition to Stalinist aesthetics (the doctrine of socialist realism was articulated just two years before the opera's premiere.)

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 11:29:20 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  "Primitivist" rather than "primitive." (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Okay, makes sense.  

        One sense that I get from reading the material on the Internet is that it wasn't just the party critics versus Shostakovich, but the party critics versus the OTHER party critics who liked Shostakovich.  Thus the need to humiliate them, publicly, as well.  Shostakovich was apparently apparently socially adept enough to have made real friends in the music world who stuck out their necks for him at critical times.  So Shostakovich's actual music may have been the least relevant aspect of this.  Except maybe to Stalin.  And his poor mom.

        Honestly, though, some of those opera singers are kind of uh, unathletic looking.  God only knows what the two singers looked like that banged against each other in Moscow that night.  It might have been terrifying out of all proportion, and a casting problem Shostakovich had no control over.  Who knows?

  •  I have been a huge Shostakovich fan since a child (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ThirtyFiveUp, Dumbo

    I can't tell you how many times I locked my bedroom door, put on Symphony #7, movement 1, and conducted myself into exhaustion.  

    I am not a musician, so my response to music is more emotional that aesthetic.  And Shostakovich, to me, is one of the most emotional (not to mention subversive) composers of the 20th century.  The fact that he didn't disappear, when so many of his colleagues did, I think sometimes devalues his work among the heady.

    The Second Violin Concerto is a wondrous study in despair:  

    Of course, for true despair, one needs to visit the string quartets.  Here's movement 2 from the 14th:

    But even in the throes of despair, there is humanity.  Take the last movement of the 15th:

    Thanks for highlight Shostakovich this week.

    Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

    by aravir on Fri Apr 29, 2011 at 05:53:23 AM PDT

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