Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony No. 14
Love and Death
Shostakovich went into hospital on 13th January 1969. Having never properly recovered from a heart attack of three years before, he had by now lost the comfortable use of his right hand and could hardly walk. In constant pain, he was suffering from the form of polio that would eventually kill him. The city’s flu epidemic meant that no visitors were allowed, but this solitude led him to focus entirely on what was to be his Fourteenth Symphony.
Seven years earlier he had orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Mussorgsky had written this song cycle with piano accompaniment in 1875 and though it had later been orchestrated by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich felt that they had not done justice to the original songs of the man he considered the greatest of Russian composers. He also thought that the work itself was too short for the subject matter, and had long wanted to write a song cycle of his own that dealt with ‘the eternal themes of love and death’. His enforced stay in the Kremlin Hospital was a perfect opportunity to fulfil this wish and by February 16th he had finished the piece in piano score form, completing the orchestration two weeks later. Even by Shostakovich’s standards this was quick work, but fear of impending death had spurred him on. In a letter to his friend Isaac Glikman he explained: ‘I wrote very fast. I was afraid something would happen to me like, for instance, my right hand would give up working altogether, or I’d suddenly go blind or something. I was pretty tortured by these ideas.’ Nor did he relax once the work was completed. Even when the manuscript was being copied for publication, he would talk about how he wanted to make sure that he had remembered the whole piece, so that if the score was somehow lost, he would be able to write it all out again. Although he had originally written it for Galina Vishnevskaya to sing, her schedule meant that she was not free to learn it immediately and, as he didn’t want to wait, the premiere went ahead with a different soprano. ‘I’m afraid I’ll die soon and I want to hear my work. The Fourteenth Symphony is a landmark piece for me. Everything I’ve written over the last many years has been a preparation for this work.’
At the premiere, Shostakovich overcame his usual shyness to explain to the audience that ‘life is man’s dearest possession. It is given to him only once and he should live so as not to experience acute pain at the thought of the years wasted aimlessly or feel searing shame for his petty and inglorious past, but be able to say, at the moment of death, that he has given all his life and energies to the noblest cause in the world – to fight for the liberation of humanity. I want listeners to this symphony to realise that “life” is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act. This is very important for much time will pass before scientists have succeeded in ensuring immortality. Death is in store for all of us and I for one do not see any good in the end of our lives. Death is terrifying. There is nothing beyond it.’ Shostakovich was arguing against the view that death is some glorious beginning to the afterlife. He disagreed with all the composers who had portrayed death with music that was beautiful, radiant, and ecstatic. For him, death really was the end and he took that as an inspiration to make sure that he lived his life to its full.
In the disputed memoirs that he is believed by many to have related to Solomon Volkov, he talks revealingly about death:
‘Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them. How can you not fear death? I wrote a number of works reflecting my understanding of the question. The most important of them is the Fourteenth Symphony; I have special feelings for it. I think that work on these compositions had a positive effect, and I fear death less now; or rather I’m used to the idea of an inevitable end and treat it as such. After all it is the law of nature and no one has ever eluded it. I’m all for a rational approach toward death. We should think more about it and accustom ourselves to it. We can’t allow the fear of death to creep up on us unexpectedly. I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they would make fewer mistakes. That’s why I’m not very concerned what people say about the Fourteenth, despite hearing more attacks on it than any other of my symphonies. Though it is stupid to protest against death as such, you can and must protest against violent death. It’s bad when people die before their time from disease or poverty, but it is worse when a man is killed by another man.’
The Fourteenth Symphony is not about death but about unnatural death; death caused by murder, oppression, and war. In fact there is not one ‘normal’ death described in the whole work and it is significant that all four of the poets whose words Shostakovich chose to set died in somewhat less than natural circumstances. Lorca was shot without trial during the Spanish Civil War; Apollinaire died in 1918 from the wounds he received during World War I; Rilke died in 1926 at the age of 51 from a rare form of leukaemia, and Küchelbecker was sent to Siberia for his part in the failed Decembrist uprising against the Tsars in 1825, where he died deaf and blind in 1846. Shostakovich’s symphony is a tribute to all who have died in pain, but particularly to the fellow suffering artists with whom he felt such affinity.
The opening, almost introductory song is an elegy for a hundred dead lovers. The first melody of the De Profundis, ironically high in the violin register, makes immediate reference to the notes of the Gregorian Mass for the Dead whose Dies Irae theme has been used by so many composers over the centuries. Its timelessness as a melodic idea creates an eternal atmosphere. This is a piece for the past, the present, and for ever. The fact that the elegy is for lovers suggests that the victims died too young and, as if to strengthen that implication, Shostakovich adds to the original Lorca text the word ‘passionate’. It is the first of many changes that the composer made to the texts, every one revealing very clearly how he wanted these poets’ words to be interpreted in his own piece of music. Some victims in the Soviet Union were not even given the dignity of a gravestone at all, and the idea of crosses being erected ‘so that they will not be forgotten by the people’ would have been of great significance for Shostakovich. He often saw his music as some kind of cross that could perpetuate the memory of others.
The emotional emptiness of this prelude is typical of a grief that is so exhausted that it can’t even speak its name, but it also allows the Malaguena dance that follows to burst onto the scene with maximum ferocity. It is a brilliant aspect of this work that Shostakovich is able to use such limited orchestral colours to create such huge contrasts. It is very easy to listen to this piece without ever realising that there are only twenty-five people involved in the performance and that the vast majority are playing string instruments. We are instantly transported from the barren planes of Andalusia to the sweaty, dirty, and passionate smoke-filled rooms of a local Spanish bar, and yet the ever economical Shostakovich doesn’t even bring in the obvious touch of the castanets until the movement is almost over. You can almost smell the alcohol. Death is dancing on the tables and charging in and out of the tavern, but Lorca’s original poem concludes with the the fact that Death eventually leaves. Shostakovich decided instead to end it with the chilling difference: ‘Death will not leave’.
Death is a feminine word in Russian, and the legendary character of the sorceress Loreley has long been considered one of its strongest representations. Lorca’s version of the German poet Clemens Brentano’s poem inspires Shostakovich to be at his most operatic, using both singers to tell the story. This also gives the sense that the first two songs were introductions and that it is in Loreley that the symphony really begins. In virtuosic composing, Shostakovich effortlessly combines Wagnerian representations of the Rhine, alongside almost direct quotes of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as well as using a twelve-note theme for the frenzied fugato that accompanies Loreley’s decision to throw herself off the cliff. Yet somehow these disparate ideas seem perfectly unified.
A lonely cello solo leads into the next song and combines with the voice to become a duet similar in style to one of Bach’s great passion arias. In French, the title of Lorca’s Le Suicide makes it clear that it is a man that has killed himself, but the Russian does not make this specific and that allows Shostakovich to imply that the suicide is Loreley’s. She in turn can be seen as a combination of the death figure of the Malaguena with one of the hundred lovers from the opening movement and these textural links, as well as many musical connections, enable Shostakovich to turn four highly individual songs into what can be heard as a long opening symphonic movement. The end of this song is the first time in the work that anyone gets a chance to draw their breath.
If the opening four songs are a complex first movement with many Mahlerian changes of tempo, so the next two are unquestionably the symphony’s scherzo. Shostakovich was forced to denounce twelve-tone serialism as typical of Western, bourgeois decadence but as a composer he was fascinated in later life by its harmonic implications. The opening xylophone melody of On the Watch has to be one of the most pleasant twelve-note melodies ever written but it still creates a sense of harmonic instability that is cleverly able to evoke the uncertainty and nervousness of a woman waiting at home whilst knowing that her lover is being killed in the trenches. The significant increase in the percussion part here is an appropriate tribute to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale but, by combining the insecurity of a twelve-note theme with the extremely assertive xylophone colour, Shostakovich subtly points out the hollowness and stupidity of war itself.
The Loreley, who had grieved for her lover far away, has become the woman who knows her lover is being killed on the battlefield, and is obviously the same woman who in the next song laughs in despair in the knowledge that he is already dead. Never has the line between laughter and tears been so finely drawn as here, and it leads seamlessly into the longest song of the work, the start of the symphony’s slow movement.
The vast majority of the music so far has been sung by the soprano, and the change to the male voice is telling. It is as if Shostakovich himself is beginning to speak and certainly it is the next three songs that seem to be the ones whose texts are closest to the composer’s heart. In 1911, Guillaume Apollinaire was wrongly arrested and imprisoned for stealing a few statues from the Louvre in Paris and his poem In the Sante Prison was the result of his rather less than serious five-day stay in jail. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn discovered that Shostakovich had chosen to set it, he was furious, and wrote to the composer explaining that it was outrageous that he should honour the millions who suffered in the Gulags with a poem by a man who could never have understood the true level of suffering that occurred. But his complaints show that he cannot have heard the piece itself as Shostakovich’s slight changes to the text, alongside music that is harrowing in the extreme, makes this a terrifying description of the pain and suffering of the lonely prisoner. Apollinaire wrote of rays of sunlight and sounds of the city drifting in, but these lines are ruthlessly cut by Shostakovich. There is nothing consoling in his prisoner’s cell and the long pianissimo fugal interlude is an unforgettable depiction of time seeming to have stopped for ever. The occasional woodblock note seems to represent the slow dripping of water in some distant, deserted, dank corridor. At the end Apollinaire implies that the lamp left burning is some kind of friend, but Shostakovich allows no such sentimentality and, by saying that the only two friends there are the prisoner and his mind, it is clear that madness has finally set in. In Testimony, Shostakovich explained: ‘I was thinking about prison cells, horrible holes, where people are buried alive, waiting for someone to come for them, listening to every sound. That’s terrifying, you can go mad with fear. Many people couldn’t stand the pressure and lost their minds. I know about that.’
The anger felt at these injustices is given full vent in The Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople. The specific event referred to is the peasants’ response to the atrocities committed by the authorities whilst Mohammed IV was Sultan of Turkey from 1648-1687, and many Russians would have been aware of Ilya Repin’s 1891 painting with the same title which shows the crowd’s hysterical glee after their dictator had finally been deposed. But the image of the Cossacks dancing and laughing with grim joy on the grave of their oppressor is one that would have been wishful thinking to many of the composer’s contemporaries, and it is in this song that Shostakovich protests most specifically not at death itself but at the oppression that causes death. To quote Testimony again: ‘I don’t protest against death, I protest against those butchers who execute people. Stalin is gone but there are still more than enough tyrants around.’
The extreme dissonances of this movement have an obvious effect, but they also serve to point out even more the significance of the rewardingly consonant world of the song that follows. It is not a coincidence that here Shostakovich turns for the first and only time to a Russian poet, for it is this song that carries with it the fundamental message of the piece and as such it seems appropriate that the composer should seek to use his own language to express it. Küchelbeker was a friend of the Russian poet Delvig, who himself was killed by the police when he was aged just 33 and, in a tribute to him, he wrote a poem that explains how poets, who have always been hated and feared by tyrants because they alone dare to freely say what is true, are sent down from heaven by the Gods to relieve the sufferings of mortals. Küchelbeker’s poem, parts of which Shostakovich takes as his text, is a celebration of the artists’ power and the importance of their friendship in the face of tyranny. It is not hard to see why Shostakovich, who had experienced so many of his artistic friends murdered or imprisoned, should have responded so beautifully to such sentiments.
From the start, the experience of the symphony has been a traumatic one: massacres, suicides, trench warfare, broken hearts, solitary confinement, madness, and tyrannical oppression. But its message is that, despite the horrors of the world, it is Art that can still make lives worthwhile. No tyrant can murder a piece of music and no oppressor can take away the emotional experience of listening to one, and it is this song that makes what at first seems a very depressing symphony into an uplifting and inspirational one. Chamber music had always been the medium in which Shostakovich was best able to express his innermost thoughts and, combined with the fact that most of this song is played by a chamber group of only five players, its warm harmonic world and truly Russian text make it unequivocal that Delvig is the musical, emotional, and philosophical climax of the work. Human beings will always die, but Art will last for ever. Shostakovich felt that, whilst for the body death was the end and there was nothing nice that could be said about it, by creating great music, the spirit would be able to last forever.
Just as the first two songs in the cycle formed a kind of introduction, so the last two work together as a concluding movement. By changing Rilke’s opening line from ‘He lay’ to ‘The poet lay’, Shostakovich draws a link to the poet of the previous song but, by starting with a direct musical quote from the very opening of the whole symphony, there is a sense in which we are made to feel we have come full circle. In the end is our beginning. The text likens a body to the landscape it has known in life, and to a rotting fruit that it has become in death.
With what works like a coup de théâtre, the soloists sing together for the first time in the final song. Its conclusion is that death, as an all-powerful and inescapable presence, is with us not only at the end of our life but during it too, always watching and waiting. We are never to know when it might strike. Shostakovich felt that the ending to this symphony was the only completely true conclusion he had ever written.
At the premiere Shostakovich had spoken about the need for a special silence whilst listening to this work. His supporters were therefore particularly angry when, during one of the quietest moments, a huge crash was heard in the auditorium and a man made a hasty and clumsy exit. When it was revealed afterwards that this man was none other than Pavel Ivanovitch Apostolov, a party organiser and one of Shostakovich’s main critics and aggressive persecutors during the late 1940s, people assumed that his protest had been carefully planned for maximum distraction. Only later did it become known that it was during this performance that Apostolov had in fact suffered a heart attack; he was dead within a month. The irony was not lost on anyone.
Shostakovich agonised for a long time about what to call his work. ‘For the first time I find myself puzzled what to call my own piece.’ Initially he referred to it as an oratorio but then felt that, without a chorus, this was inappropriate. The fact that one could make a case for it as a song-cycle, a concert opera, a symphony, or perhaps even a piece of chamber music is further proof of what a great and unique work this is. As a piece of music that combines the best aspects of all these genres, and as one that, whilst visiting life’s most depressing subject, gives it the most inspirational of messages, I would argue that it stands as his greatest work of all.
© Mark Wigglesworth 1999