Friday, March 12, 2010

The Physics of Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich monument unveiled in St Petersburg

Two weeks ago I decided that my commitment to Russian culture had to extend to Russian composers whose work was being performed at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra--C.S.O. for short. If I didn’t go to see the upcoming performance of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovitch, who would? (I didn’t realize that real Russians had already purchased tickets directly in front of us). No matter than I knew nothing at all about orchestral music, had little appreciation for what is commonly if mistakenly called “classical” music, and dropped out of piano after a single year, my fingers never reaching beyond ten, or perhaps twelve, ivory keys, before my teacher, who I still recall (30 years later) received a paltry five dollars an hour, suffered a nervous breakdown—a term that mean very little to me at the time but, sadly, means more and more to me as I move ever deeper into middle age—and left off teaching altogether.

Dmitri Shostakovich

No matter, I bought the tickets and even attended a pre-performance lecture by a noted musicologist. The historical draw for me, is that Shostakovich had composed this work in memory of Russia’s first modern revolution, that of 1905. According to the program, 1905 was the unifying revolution, the one almost all shades of Russian educated public opinion accepted, whether liberal, socialist, or merely constitutional. The musicologist told us that Shostakovich was Stalin’s composer, as our co-author, Nick, has previously reminded us by posting on a book that explores this complicated relationship in some depth.

Alicia Markova

In fact, Stalin was a great lover of music and also of Shostakovich for the most part. Shostakovich the composer possessed many of the hallmarks of Socialist Realism, and this generally but not always pleased Stalin. These elements of Socialist Realism, and Stalin’s patronage in general, have had an ambiguous impact on the composer’s legacy in Russia and elsewhere. After Stalin’s death, liberal Russians distained Stalin’s aesthetic judgments, and in any even rightly perceived that Shostakovich had missed out on a few of the most important elements of musical modernism.


Even so, the lecturer told us that “1905” was an excellent piece of music, and one that effectively incorporated many of the Russian songs of rebellion and revolution that were the patrimony of most Russians at the time. He also speculated that the “1905” might have been an oblique critique of Khrushchev’s decision in 1956 to brutally crush a popular revolt against Soviet hegemony in Hungary. The evening also included Rachmaninoff, and the central role of virtuoso piano parts seemed to make this easier to love than Shostakovich.

Yet one couldn’t listen to the Romantic stuff without picturing Liberace in a white, diamond studded outfit on stage. And thus, as I imagine my more musically literature readers can stand more of my uneducated ramblings about music, I shall quit this post. And the reader need not fear that I will decided to analyze the accomplishments of Soviet physicists anytime soon, though I reserve the right to do so.

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