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.
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.
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.