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Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10

Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10

Shostakovich Symphonies 5, 6, 10
The late 1930s

The main purpose of the terror that Stalin inflicted on the Soviet people in the 1930s was simply to create fear itself. The dictator could maintain power as long as there was no unified effort to oppose him and there would not be whilst everyone was scared not only of him but of each other too. Mistrust was created by persuading as many people as possible to denounce their fellow citizens as enemies of the state. Denouncing in fact became one of the main ways to survive. Children even denounced their parents. One man alone denounced 230 people and they would all have been either executed or sent to prison. There was no ideology involved. Stalin preferred people to support him through fear rather than conviction as he was well aware that convictions could not be relied on. He had decided that 5% of the population was an appropriate level of arrests to maintain and to do this a certain quota was needed every week. To meet these quotas, the charges brought were absurd. One village lost all its men aged between 20 and 50, having been accused of sabotage by sowing the crops too late. One district, in order to meet its target of 3.800 arrests, decided to rearrest every prisoner who had been released the previous year. Any contact with foreigners was equally disastrous. A doctor who had treated a German consul was arrested, as was an opera singer who danced with the Japanese ambassador. One man was executed for receiving a pair of shoes from abroad. A woman got a similar punishment for saying that a certain disgraced general was quite handsome. There was not a single thinking adult who did not at some time expect to be arrested or shot. The writer Isaak Babel observed that ‘a man could only talk freely with his wife and even then only at night, with the blankets pulled over their heads.’ Every man became an island. People lived in extreme dread at night and with an intense effort by day to pretend that they were enthusiastic for the system. It is hard to imagine what that kind of fear must feel like. It is impossible to know what it must feel like as a permanent condition of life.

This was the context in which Dmitri Shostakovich read Pravda on 28th January 1936. An article which everyone could tell had been written by Stalin himself denounced his recent opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as ‘coarse, primitive and vulgar’. Entitled ‘Chaos instead of Music’, it made clear that ‘things could end very badly’ for the composer unless he changed his avant- garde style. Shostakovich was immediately shunned by almost everybody he knew. People crossed the street to avoid him. He was listed in the press as an enemy of the people. To know him was dangerous; to associate with him, suicidal. His brother-in-law, mother-in-law and uncle were all taken away. He was not yet thirty. He had little money and his wife was pregnant. He kept a small suitcase packed for the time when the expected arrest would come. As a result of the Pravda attack, he immediately withdrew his Fourth Symphony from rehearsals. He knew that to go ahead and publish this dark and introspective work would have led to certain execution for daring to defy Stalin’s insistence on uplifting tunes. To survive he wrote what was expected of him but privately he set to music some poems by Pushkin. One of them, called Rebirth, describes a ruthless barbarian who, with a thick paintbrush, blackens over a picture painted by a genius. Only with the passing of time does this surface paint dry and slowly fall away, eventually revealing the original masterpiece in all its glory. It would be many years before most people understood the true significance of this song.

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op.47

Considering the circumstances, the work’s opening sense of protest is an extraordinarily brave gesture. An aspiring upward interval is immediately negated by an exhausted descending one and it is this conflicting rising and falling, hope and despair, that pervades most of the movement. Shostakovich catches you by the scruff of the neck and demands you listen to what he has to say. The first melody is one of great sadness, personal without being sentimental; soft and slightly restricted. He dares not plead too loudly at first. We are brought into a world of such extreme isolation that only music like this makes us realise something of what it must have been like. The central section is a grotesque march. It gathers in speed as more and more people join in and you feel that this machine’s inexorable journey towards catastrophe cannot be avoided. The state is gathering all before it and marching everybody off into a world devoid of any humanity. Shostakovich resists and in what appears as a superhuman act of will, a huge unison restatement of the opening sad and personal theme, this time fortissimo and liberated, brings the march to a halt. Perhaps it is possible to withstand a regime’s oppression. Perhaps there could be freedom. But at the climax the marching rhythms fight back and it appears that they are the victors after all. As the army departs you hear their distant fanfares and all that is left of the people’s resistance is a lonely weeping violin solo. Maybe that will be enough. Certainly the battle is not yet over.

The scherzo also opens with a protest: a protest at having to be a scherzo at all. How is it possible to joke in a world like this? How can we be expected to dance? This waltz parody is as bitter as anything Shostakovich ever wrote. You might insist I dance, he says, but you can’t make me dance sincerely. Music does not get much more agonizing than the succeeding Largo. The fact that this movement was written in just three days only increases the awe with which you hear it. It was once said of the poet Anna Akhmatova that ‘her mouth is one through which a hundred million people cry.’ You get the same feeling here. The pain is unbearable at times but it is not unhappy music, just deeply, deeply sad. If it is at all possible to pay tribute to every one of the seven million executions that it is estimated that Stalin ordered between 1935 and 1941, Shostakovich has done so. After all the anger and sorrow the overriding but unanswerable question is ‘Why?’.

The finale’s interruption could not be more brutal. Its lack of respect for the dead would be unbelievable if it wasn’t unfortunately so true. Like the central section of the first movement, the music charges on and on, whipping everybody up into a frenzy. But it is the victim of its own power and ultimately can go no further than collapsing in on its own aggression. Out of the rubble of this crash, slowly and softly emerges a meandering figure on the violins that bears an uncanny similarity to the moment in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov where the chronicler Pimen sets down to write the truth. Shostakovich is wanting to draw our attention to the fact that he himself is about to tell us something important. What emerges is a direct quote from Rebirth, the Pushkin song that had been Shostakovich’s first reaction to the nightmare that was the Pravda attack of the previous year. Of course at the time of the symphony’s first performance, no one even knew of the existence of this song, let alone its words. ‘With the passing of time, the crude daubings of the barbarian will dry and flake off like old scales. The beauty of the original painting will be visible once more.’ When the symphony’s connection to this song was made years later, what many people had always felt to be the music’s meaning became its inescapable truth. As the harps play, it seems there is a possibility of surviving, the rebirth of a whole people is not an impossible utopia. Time has passed, the lies of the Stalin regime have finally crumbled, the truth has emerged. Shostakovich saw the future and was brave enough to depict it, however cryptically he needed to do so to survive. In this sense the coda of the work is a victory but it is a victory against Stalin, not for him. Music’s innate ability to be ambiguous was to be Shostakovich’s saving. There is no way he would have been able to pretend to give Stalin the upbeat ending he insisted on in any other medium. Stalin demanded exultation. ‘What exultation could there be?’ Shostakovich is quoted as saying in Testimony, his memoirs. ‘It is as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing. You rise shakily and go off muttering, our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’

The Russian people at the premiere understood exactly what the music was saying. There was a forty minute ovation. Many of the audience were in tears. Fundamentally they were tears of gratitude that someone had had the extraordinary courage and ability to write about their times in a way that was true but also permissible. They had a voice after all. The repeated notes that end the work are shocking. That they are repeated 252 times is a sign that Shostakovich knew the battle would be a long time in winning. He knew there would be millions more deaths before the truth was discovered. Listening today to the music it is hard to imagine how anyone could have been taken in by Shostakovich’s double speak. Perhaps they weren’t. Perhaps even Stalin realised that on this occasion he had been outwitted and had no choice but to let the people’s champion get away with it. With this work Shostakovich was able to usher in a cease fire. Unfortunately it was not to last long.

It is commonly thought that Shostakovich called the work ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to just criticism.’ This is not true. It was a subtitle suggested to him by a local journalist for the Moscow premiere of the work two months later and it was typical of the composer’s intense ambivalence to any type of criticism that he did not see any point in denying it. In essence, in fact, it is mostly true. He was a Soviet artist and it was a practical and creative response. Practical in the sense that any other type of response would have led to death and creative in its ability to say one thing to some people and something else to others. Only the words ‘just criticism’ benefit from Shostakovich’s typically ironic inflection. His pragmatism immediately saw that if the price for this work’s future survival was agreeing to a little verbose and pompous self-criticism, it was a price well worth paying. His great strength was knowing when to be a hero and when to conform. As a composer he was undoubtedly heroic. As a man, he would do anything to survive. His music is his truth; his words protected him. There is an old Russian proverb that says: ‘Pretend to be kissing someone, but then spit when they are not looking.’

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.54

Written in the summer of 1939, the Sixth Symphony begins where the Fifth left off. According to Testimony, ‘it was a difficult and mean time, unbelievably mean and hard. Every day brought more bad news and I felt so much pain. I was so lonely and afraid. ’ A long first movement of intensely private sorrow and desolation is followed by two fast movements of great public joy and exuberance. There is absolutely no attempt to deal with the contradictions. For some people, this contrast is irreconcilable. But that is the whole point. This was the trauma for the Soviet people in the thirties. Of course it was impossible to reconcile your public show of contentment with your private suffering. Reality was absurd. After years of attacking fascism, Stalin suddenly declared Hitler ‘a great friend of socialism’. Saying anything against him was a deportable offence. Two years after that he was the invading evil dictator again. History was constantly being rewritten. As someone remarked: ‘it was very hard not knowing what was going to happen yesterday.’

There are times in the first movement when the music seems hardly to move. 1t is so static in places, you wonder whether it is alive at all. It sounds nocturnal – the time when you might just be able to get away with being yourself. Certainly only when you were alone were feelings permitted. Distant trumpets imply a vigil for the dead, a celeste the eerie passing of time, a long flute solo a lost nightingale. Even the birds were lonely. Shostakovich had recently transcribed the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony for piano duet. Both symphonies were written just prior to the First and Second World Wars and both composers foresaw the tragedies that were about to unfold. It is not just their sound worlds that here seem similar. Shostakovich was also a Mahlerian in his desire to put meaning before any conventional ideas of form and balance. Both composers wrote their symphonies in exactly the form that the emotion of each demanded. In the Sixth Symphony, Shostakovich wanted to express an illogical and contradictory world and so chose a form that is both those things. The upbeat nature of the two scherzos should sound hollow, the phoney heartlessness of large groups of people. It is daylight, and false. Stalin had asked for light and boisterous finales. Shostakovich responded with such extreme agreement that he was again able to satisfy the conflicting demands of his mentor and his conscience. The writer Ian MacDonald puts it perfectly: ‘If you want light music, you are going to get it – and with vengeance.’ At the most bombastic moments of the finale, a thought must be spared for the pain of the first movement. The contrast makes for uncomfortable listening. You feel almost guilty at being carried away, however briefly, by the joie de vivre of the finale. It was a guilt that many did not want to own up to when it came to supporting Stalin.

The late 1940s

Although Russia lost about a sixth of its population in the war, its end was not felt with any great relief by the Soviet people who knew that its cessation would simply refocus Stalin on internal affairs. So paranoid was Stalin, in fact, that through fear at what Russian prisoners of war might have assimilated whilst in Nazi camps in Germany, they were all arrested on their return and sent to the Gulags. Depression increased as Stalin’s grip over the world grew. Acquiring Poland and Hungary raised both the scope and need for more gulags. The late 1940s were also times when people who had been sentenced to ten years in prison in the late 1930s were due to be released. More often than not they were immediately rearrested to prevent the absurdities of the original convictions becoming public knowledge. The bonding of the people that war had brought about was soon disintegrating again. People began to keep cushions over their telephones through the belief that they were in fact bugging devices. Every acquaintance was again a possible informer. Stalin declared that there was no nobler act than denouncing a friend. The similarities with the thirties were all too obvious and it was not long before the arts again felt the brunt of the party’s attack. At the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1948, the Minister for Culture, Andrei Zhdanov, proclaimed that contemporary music was ‘like a dentist’s drill. The only arbiters should be the people and what the people want is mass songs.’ Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony was described as ‘not a musical work at all, repulsive and ultra-individualist.’ He was forced to resign from the composers’ union. Newsweek magazine called it a ‘sharps and flats purge’, presumably not quite realising the seriousness of the situation for the people involved. Yet again Shostakovich was a non-person. People smashed his windows.

The gap between his Ninth and Tenth Symphonies was the largest between any of his major orchestral works. But was it really a gap? Shostakovich once said that as a composer he thought long and wrote fast. He would normally compose the piece completely in his head and only when it was ‘finished’ would he write it down. This actually makes it very hard to pinpoint the exact date of composition. It used to be assumed that Shostakovich wrote the Tenth Symphony after the death of Stalin in 1953. Certainly it is hard to imagine him daring to publish a piece like this whilst his tormentor was still alive, but the pianist and friend of the composer, Tatiana Nikolayeva swore that she heard him play parts of the work to her as early as 1951. Shostakovich admitted in Testimony what most people had always presumed, namely that his Tenth Symphony was about Stalin. Whether he was dead or alive at the time is not really the point.

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op.93

The first movement, a huge arching slow waltz that builds to a climax as inevitably as it recedes away from it is an amazing journey that, despite apparently ending where it began, has travelled an enormous distance. Structurally it is the most perfect single orchestral movement he ever wrote. Emotionally there is a tired and drained quality that reflects Akhmatova’s line: ‘How sad that there is no one else to lose, and one can weep.’ We feel the exhaustion of all who lived through the twenty-five years of Stalin’s tyranny.

It was a regime whose brutal inexhaustibility Shostakovich portrays in the breathtaking second movement. It begins fortissimo and is followed by no fewer than fifty crescendos. There are only two diminuendos. The effect is self-explanatory. The emotion is not so much a depiction of Stalin himself, but an anger that he ever existed. In fact, such was his hold over the people, that the hysteria greeting his funeral cortege was so great that hundreds of people were crushed to death by tanks trying to keep order and protect the coffin. It is typical of Stalin that he should have continued to be responsible for people’s deaths even from beyond the grave.

Like the first movement, the third is another attempt to dance. This waltz is more macabre and is based on a theme that is the first four letters of the composer’s own initial and sumarne. When the letters DSch are turned into Gennan musical notation, they spell the notes D-E flat-C-B. But defining his identity like this does not seem to get him anywhere. The music keeps falling back on itself. There seems no way out until the cellos and basses, in a desperate crescendo, stumble as if by chance upon an an initially enigmatic horn call. This five-note theme appears no less than twelve times – every time almost identical – and bears a striking resemblance to the opening horn fanfare of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The message of this deeply optimistic work would have undoubtedly struck a chord with Shostakovich. Despite all the horrors, life itself is beautiful and will always be so despite man’s attempts to ruin it. The world will always renew itself. Another possible meaning for the theme is that, using the French system of notation as well as the German one, the horn call can be taken to spell the name ELMIRA: E-L(a)-Mi-R(e)-A. Elmira Nazirova was an Azeri pianist and composer who had studied with Shostakovich. He had become infatuated with her and wrote her numerous letters during the summer of 1953. Maybe both ‘translations’ are relevant. One represents eternal nature, the other human love. Both are forces for good and as such, the most powerful weapons against an evil like Stalin’s. The horn call symbolises an alternative. Unfortunately there seems no way of connecting with it. The movement recapitulates the DSch waltz and it becomes increasingly desperate. There is a story that Gogol used to stare constantly into a mirror and, in mad self-contemplation, repeatedly call out his own name. There is something of this mania here. Over and over again the DSch motif is repeated, frantically trying to assert its individuality. At its almost hysterical climax, the eternal love theme returns, this time on all four horns and fortissimo. Yes, that is the answer. That is the alternative. But you wonder if the realization has come too late. The final horn call is a long way away, beyond our grasp again.

The finale opens in a Siberian landscape with solitary woodwind voices trying to communicate with each other across the barren plains. It is the slowest music of the whole symphony, a timely reminder of the desolation that the prisoners were actually experiencing.To survive the camps was a miracle. It was not uncommon for forty men to be kept in a cell built for four. In fact many were simply shot as their sentence came to an end on the presumption that if they were still alive they had either worked less than they should have or eaten more than their share. At home, life goes on and the ensuing Allegro depicts the humdrum and meaningless existence of people trying to avoid their own deportation. The symphony is not sure which is worse. At least the prisoners were allowed to cry. The fast music never really gets going. As Shostakovich said, ‘it is very hard to run free when you are constantly looking over your shoulder.’ You can pretend to be playing games but you will always be playing them in a kind of prison. The poet Osip Mandelstam’s description of the time is haunting: ‘We were capable of coming to work with a smile on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a relative arrested. It was essential to smile. If you didn’t, it meant that you were afraid or unhappy. Nobody could afford to admit this.’

The purges had made virtually everyone an accomplice. It was like a snowball, gathering up all it touched. As the somewhat gossipy bassoon begins the finale’s coda, it is joined one by one by almost everybody else. Galloping alongside is the evil rhythm of the second movement – the return of the snare drum giving us no option but to realize that Stalin is the one pushing the snowball down the hill. But the horns and timpani fight back, hammering out the DSch motif and with it the desire to remain individual. I will not be beaten, he is shouting. You will never get me. The defiance is remarkable. The fact that the opposition to it is still there, however, lends credence to the fact that Shostakovich could have conceived this work before Stalin died. Perhaps he just realized that after Stalin would simply come somebody else to repress the people. Either way, there is no sense of relief at the end of this work, just a triumphant assertion that, despite the continued presence of tyranny, an individual with a strong enough spirit can survive. ‘Even if they chop my hands off,’ he said, ‘I will continue to compose music – even if I have to hold the pen between my teeth’. Only Shostakovich can be so optimistic, pessimistic and ultimately realistic in one work without any sense of contradiction. It is what makes all his symphonies such vital chronicles of the twentieth century.

© Mark Wigglesworth 1998