May 21, 2014

Voices from the past

Epitaph on a Tyrant
by W. H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

“Shostakovich was a man of his time and a voice of his time and a voice of his country,"
says conductor Valery Gergiev 
in this documentary of Shostakovich's relationship with dictator Joseph Stalin. 

Composing throughout the height of Stalin’s reign of terror, Shostakovich watched as friends and colleagues were persecuted and killed, and was himself under continual threat from authority. Mired in unimaginable circumstances, his creative output was extraordinary, irrepressible, and defiant, rising above the restrictions imposed by the state and subtly criticizing with his characteristic use of musical sarcasm and irony.

Like the "easy" poetry of Auden's tyrant, Stalin's own musical taste was tame (his favorite song was reportedly the Georgian folk song "Suliko") and throughout Stalin's regime, Shostakovich faced pressure to write music that glorified the country—and the threat of death if he did not. Despite these constraints, Shostakovich succeeded in creating music as complex as the era in which it was composed. Listen to "Suliko" here:

And compare it to this excerpt from the second movement of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony:

Miles away from the gentle strains of Russian folk music, Symphony No. 10 can't be characterized as "easy." Perhaps Shostakovich's own "Epitaph on a Tyrant," the piece was premiered in December, 1953, just nine months after Stalin's death. Skim through the RPO program notes for the symphony, and you'll find a fusion of powerful and conflicting adjectives: "sober ... desolate ... searing intensity ... relentless, maniacal energy ... one of the most concentrated outbursts of fury in all music ... enigmatic and unsettling ... bitter, ironic climax that borders on hysteria .. mournful .. frenzied edge." These descriptors pack a punch, and so does this symphony: alternating between sorrowful and chaotic, it transcends oppression, politics, nationality, and seemingly invincible dictators to express the inexpressible as only music can.

More thoughts on this symphony and tips on what to listen for can be found here and here.

The RPO performs Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony May 22 and 24, 2014 with guest conductor Thomas Wilkins. The program also includes James Beckel's Toccata for Orchestra and Arutiunian's Trumpet Concerto (Douglas Prosser, trumpet).