Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony No.13

Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony No. 13

By 19th September 1941, the German Army had reached Kiev and a week later the following notice was put up around the city:
‘All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, 29th September 1941 to the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jew not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot.’
Most thought they were going to be deported and gathered by the cemetery, expecting to be loaded onto trains. Some even arrived early to ensure themselves a seat. Instead they were ordered towards a ravine known as Babi Yar and once there, made to undress. Those who hesitated had their clothes ripped off by force. They were then systematically shot and hurled into the gorge. If only wounded, they were killed with shovels. Some, especially the children, were just thrown in alive and buried amongst the dead. This continued for five days. Whilst the soldiers rested at night, the remaining victims were locked in empty garages. 33,771 were killed on the first two days. As many as 100,000 in all.
Two years later, while retreating over the same ground, the Germans decided to cover up any signs that this had ever happened. The bodies were dug up by hand, burnt, and all the evidence destroyed. But this wasn’t only of benefit to the Nazis. It had become well known that plenty of native Ukrainians had assisted in the monstrosity and, though whether they were forced to do it or whether they willingly collaborated will never really be known, there was certainly enough negative gossip around for it to be advantageous for many for the whole event to be kept quiet. And when the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was taken to see the site twenty years later, the fact that there was no memorial on display horrified him almost as much as the atrocity itself. The nightmare at Babi Yar was unofficial, discussed only in whispers. For someone committed to fighting anti-Semitism wherever it was found, as well as exposing the horrors of the Soviet Union’s past, the absence of any commemoration was an injustice he felt compelled to rectify.
Yevtushenko was born in 1933 in Irkutsk to a family of Ukrainian exiles. He moved to Moscow as a boy and attended the Gorky Institute of Literature. In 1961 he produced the poem Babi Yar, attacking the Soviet indifference to the Nazi massacre. It was first read in public by its author but came under immediate attack from the authorities as it was Soviet policy to present the Holocaust as being perpetrated against Soviet citizens as a whole rather than any specific genocide of the Jews. Yevtushenko was criticised for belittling the suffering of the Russian people by suggesting that it was only Jews who were the victims of Babi Yar. No one had dared publish anything before that was so open about domestic anti-Semitism and the poem was not allowed to be officially published again until 1984.
In Testimony, the memoirs that many believe he dictated to Solomon Volkov, Dmitri Shostakovich explained his own views on anti-Semitism:
‘I often test a person by his attitude towards the Jews. In our day and age, any person with pretensions of decency cannot be anti-Semitic. The Jews are a symbol for me. All of man’s defencelessness is concentrated in them. After the war I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact it is always a bad time for them. We must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is alive and who knows if it will ever disappear. That’s why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar. The poem astounded me. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans, and then the Ukranian government, but after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art. People knew about Babi Yar before the poem, but they were silent. But when they read the poem, the silence was broken.’ He decided instantly to set it to music. ‘I cannot not write it,’ he said to a friend.
The so called ‘thaw’ of the post-Stalin era was rapidly coming to an end. The publication in 1962 of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had been personally allowed by Krushchev, but this led to publishers being flooded with texts about the oppression of the past and the authorities soon took fright, with the President wasting no time in starting to correct his over-hasty liberalisation. On 17th December writers and artists were summoned to the Kremlin to be given a dressing down. Krushchev attacked the decadence of modern art, ominously quoting the Russian proverb: ‘The grave cures the hunchback’. Yevtushenko replied that he thought it was ‘no longer the grave, but life’. Although the reception marked the end of the thaw, eleventh-hour attempts to stop the first performance of the Babi Yar symphony, scheduled for the following day, were fortunately thwarted by the bravery of the performers involved.
Mravinsky, the conductor of the première of most of Shostakovich’s previous symphonies, had declined to be involved with such a controversial work, and the composer never really forgave him for what he felt to be an act of cowardly betrayal. Instead Kirill Kondrashin was asked to conduct and, aware of an official desire for the concert not to happen, he decided to make sure that two bass singers were prepared for the solo role. His initial choice was probably not the ideal candidate. During rehearsals the singer, Victor Nechipailo, had asked Shostakovich why he was writing about anti-Semistism when there wasn’t any in the Soviet Union. ‘No! There is’, came the furious reply. ‘It is an outrageous thing and we must shout about it from the rooftops.’ It was not surprising that the singer got cold feet and didn’t show up for the final rehearsal, though the fact that he had been suddenly seconded into singing Don Carlos at the Bolshoi that night gave him the excuse he may well have been looking for. And so it was that Kondrashin’s safety net worked and his second choice, Vitali Gromadsky, sang the first performance.
As if this wasn’t quite enough stress for the conductor, Kondrashin was asked to take a phone call in the middle of the final rehearsal from Georgi Popov, the Russian Minister of Culture. He was asked if the symphony could be performed without its most politically sensitive first movement. No, said Kondrashin. Was there anything that might prevent the conductor from performing that night, continued the threatening questions. The courage of Kondrashin to say no to that too should not be underestimated with the benefit of hindsight.
The concert went ahead with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire. Nevertheless the planned live TV broadcast was cancelled and the entire square outside was cordoned off by police, who didn’t want the performance to be an opportunity for opposition demonstrations. The hall itself was packed, save for the significantly empty government box and, though the texts were unusually not printed in the programme book, the audience could understand every word and the first night reception was one of Shostakovich’s most triumphant of all. One line reported the event in the following day’s Pravda.
It must have been an extraordinary concert and it is very special for me that the leader and principal cellist on this recording (Valentine Zhuk and Dmitri Ferschtman) were, as young students, both present in the audience that night.
Shortly after the première, Yevtushenko slightly rewrote the poem, finally agreeing to the authorities’ demands to include some lines about the role of the Soviet people in the war and to make it clear that it was not only the Jews who suffered, but Russians and Ukrainians as well. Despite Shostakovich feeling profoundly let down by Yevtushenko’s aquiescence, some say that it was Kondrashin who asked Yevtushenko to ‘save’ the symphony by making the changes. The government had said that, unless text revisions were made, further performances would be banned, (or at least the work would be ‘not recommended for performance’, which amounted to the same thing) and, as the proposed changes were so slight, both conductor and poet felt that they were a small price to pay for the survival of the work as a whole. Shostakovich did eventually sanction the alterations and, without needing to change the music, incorporated them into the score, which was finally published in 1971. In this recording it is the original words that are sung.
What Shostakovich loved about texts was the opportunity to be very specific in what he wanted to express. ‘In recent years I’ve become more convinced that word is more effective than music. When I combine music with words, it becomes harder to misinterpret my intent.’ As if to maximise this communication, the word setting in the symphony is almost entirely syllabic. Its rhythms correspond as closely as possible to those of speech, with plenty of repeated notes and stepwise, conjunct motion. Only very occasionally does the range widen to heighten a particular moment, and the effect when this happens is devastating. This fundamental simplicity is similar to folk-song, and the often purely informative style of the singing makes the emotion all the more powerful. The chorus, singing almost entirely in unison, alternates from a Greek tragedy inspired universality to a very real, even at times operatic portrayal of vivid scenes.
Shostakovich originally only planned to set the Babi Yar poem but soon realised that it was in fact just the first movement of a much bigger piece. The four other Yevtushenko poems he chose to use for the rest of the symphony reveal a huge kaleidoscope of Russian events, emotions, and ideas. It is a shame in a way that the piece as a whole has become known as ‘Babi Yar’, for the work is about even more than that.
The second movement, Humour, expresses the traditional belief in the power of the buffoon to make tyrants tremble, and the inability of leaders to muzzle it. Court jesters are able to say what trusted advisers dare not mention, and the ability of laughter to bring inner strength to the downtrodden was something dear to Shostakovich’s heart. Though not a Jew, Shostakovich related to them as an oppressed and powerless people and it was the same connection he felt with the Russian women to whose strength, hard work, and dignity during the war he pays tribute with the third movement, In the Store. The fourth movement, Fears, is the only one whose text Yevtushenko wrote specifically for this piece. The fact that Shostakovich asked for something new suggests that the subject matter was something he didn’t want to leave out and it is with devastating irony that he precedes the opening line, ‘Fears are dying out in Russia’, with the most seriously terrifying music of the whole work. Between 1956 and 1965, nine out of every ten Russian synagogues were closed. It is not surprising that the initial optimism that followed the death of Stalin proved short-lived.
In the final movement, Shostakovich glorifies the many who sacrificed their careers by sticking to their beliefs. In turn he mocks those who sought to further themselves by giving in to the authorities. It is those who kept their integrity that we remember now, and people who sought success that we have long forgotten. At first Yevtushenko didn’t understand the music of the final pages. He had initially imagined something more heroic than the simple ‘harmony softly slushing around dead bodies’. But he later came to understand ‘the power of softness, the strength in fragility’ and realised that the fluttering butterflies of Shostakovich’s hauntingly ethereal closing bars had elevated his own texts to something far more than they could have been on their own. ‘After all the suffering you need a little sip of harmony. A little sip of something that is not connected with Stalin’s policies, something without Stalin’s suffering. Something which is about us. A sense of eternity.’
Babi Yar began life with Yevtushenko’s desire to commemorate the silent victims of the past. Memory was also a fundamental concept for Shostakovich. ‘The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone. I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that’s impossible and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all. The rarest and most valuable thing is memory. It has been trampled down for decades. How we treat the memory of others is how our memory will be treated.’
An official memorial at Babi Yar was not built until 1976. It did not mention that most of its victims were Jews. It took a further fifteen years before that injustice was finally rectified. As Shostakovich said: ‘Art destroys silence’.
© Mark Wigglesworth 2006

Back to writings