Power And Struggle In A Soviet Symphony

Nov 8, 2014
Originally published on November 8, 2014 11:33 am

One of my favorite pastimes is reading composer biographies. For me, context is critical in understanding music and being able to get the most out of every musical journey. Insight into the political, social, historical and personal landscape at a specific moment when a composer wrote a piece can add enormous dimension to the listening experience. Sharing that enhanced experience with listeners is incredibly rewarding and the Baltimore Symphony is the perfect partner. After all, how many orchestras have a playwright on staff?

Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin is a new Symphonic Play™ by writer and director Didi Balle, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's very own playwright-in-residence. (With the BSO and a cast of actors, the piece will be performed in North Bethesda, Md. Nov. 14 and in Baltimore Nov. 15.)

Our goal is to transport our audience to the very moment when Dmitri Shostakovich was writing his Fifth Symphony — to tell the story behind the piece, what inspired and compelled him to write it, and what it all means. Here, I'll turn it over to Didi Balle, who sets the scene of Shostakovich's powerful and perhaps enigmatic, Symphony No. 5:

On the eve of Jan. 26, 1936 Joseph Stalin and his entourage attended a performance of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District but they left the theater before the last act. The opera had been playing to acclaim for two years in Moscow and its 29-year-old composer was hailed a Russian musical genius, beloved by his fellow countrymen.

A few days after Stalin's ominous attendance, a vociferous and damning editorial called "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared anonymously in Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper. The editorial denounced Shostakovich as a "formalist" and petty bourgeois composer whose "intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds" was a danger to the Soviet people. Everyone was convinced Stalin himself penned the artistic death warrant.

Two weeks later a second unsigned editorial appeared in Pravda (an unprecedented sequence of attacks) denouncing Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream in Moscow. Shostakovich was betrayed by nearly all of his colleagues in the Composers Union who supported Pravda's attacks. Stripped of professional support and friends, and anticipating the worst, Shostakovich allegedly kept a packed suitcase under his writing desk as he attempted to create new music in an atmosphere of isolation and fear.

Further catastrophic events unfolded: the arrest, imprisonment, exile and death of powerful patrons and family members. Shostakovich was forced to withdraw the Leningrad Philharmonic's premiere of his Symphony No. 4, fearing for his life and the musicians who dared play his music. Still, he continued to compose. Meanwhile, Stalin and his officials awaited the debut of his Fifth Symphony to see if a chastened Shostakovich had "reformed" and written music according to their dictates.

Against this backdrop of pervasive political terror and personal attack, Shostakovich had to find a way to write his Symphony No. 5, scheduled to premiere Nov. 21, 1937. Fearing arrest, torture and even death, the composer, with sly brilliance and a remarkable spirit, found a way to compose music which appeared to adhere to Stalin's directives while subtly weaving a deeper and sardonic musical truth, bearing testimony to the despair and terror that reigned over the nation.

From the symphony's opening battle between the lower and the upper strings and its soaring melodies, to the sounds of hopeless oppression and finally to the triumph of the human spirit, Shostakovich brilliantly captures the conflicting moods of a time, place and people.

(This essay includes program notes by writer and director Didi Balle.)

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Early in 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich was in the doghouse, which in Stalin's Soviet Union, could be just a step from the gulag. Stalin had dropped in on a performance of the composer's new opera and stormed out. Two days later Pravda, the state newspaper, called the opera noise and dissonance and dismissed Shostakovich as a petty bourgeois composer. Some say Stalin wrote that review himself, and in the USSR, no one else's opinion mattered.


WERTHEIMER: Against this backdrop, Shostakovich wrote his towering fifth Symphony to try to redeem himself in the eyes of Stalin. This is a recording of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. And next weekend, Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the piece. NPR's Scott Simon spoke with the maestra and asked her what happened to Shostakovich after that fateful opera performance in front of Stalin?

MAESTRA MARIN ALSOP: He had gone from being the most revered and, you know, favored composer to being censored and banned and an outcast. His friends wouldn't even speak to him. And he was speaking to a friend saying, you know, what am I going to do? There's nothing I can do to redeem myself. And, you know, he started thinking about how can I be true to myself and yet also write music that will somehow appeal to these very narrow minded leaders? And he brilliantly achieves that because what he does as he's walking this fine line between giving them this patriotic music, you know, with a lot of brass, a lot of percussion, you know, kind of military march-like and also writing music that has a constant double entendre. So below the surface, you know, one's never sure if he's being sarcastic, ironic or completely sincere.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Let's begin. We heard a bit of the opening, which certainly has notes of distress and conflict. Later in the first movement, as you suggest we hear - not sadly John Philip Sousa, but a rousing military march.


SIMON: I must say there's a part of me that envisions papa Joe himself, with that bristly mustache and corncob pipe, sitting up during this music and saying finally, that's music.

ALSOP: Right, you can just sense all the authorities, you know, sitting suddenly up at attention and saluting and just almost out of their seats, you know, wanting to march to this music. And, of course, that was Shostakovich's intention. For the Soviet authorities, this was real patriotic music. But for the listeners who were in tune with these subtexts, it was an ironic, almost a jab at the authorities. So he managed to serve both audiences and both purposes simultaneously, which must have been a tortuous line for him to tread. Can you imagine?

SIMON: Help us through a section of this, if you could maestra, where we hear this - both the, if you please, the royal pomp and circumstance, the martial stirrings and the notes of subversion.


ALSOP: Well, of course, this sounds like just a happy go lucky peasant dance in a way, but Shostakovich is referencing Mahler, particularly Mahler in his first symphony - Mahler's approach to the scherzo. And Mahler is a band composer. He's censored, he's prohibited, you know, because his music is subversive. He was Jewish, you know - so many strikes against Mahler. So here is Shostakovich not really quoting Mahler but imitating Mahler's music.


SIMON: So many different emotions in this piece between despair, the martial music. Let's listen to part of the third movement - different mood altogether.


ALSOP: For me, this is really the apex, the emotional apex, of the piece. I'm sure for the Soviet authority sitting it was probably a moment for them to rest their eyes, but it is so pleading and plaintiff in tone. Also very personal, very intimate, this third movement and yet, at some moments, the cello just - they're searing, passionately singing out. You know, it goes again from one extreme to the opposite end of the spectrum emotionally and I think the listeners - especially his countrymen who understood what kind of thin line he was treading - I think they would've heard this plea and really related intensely to this movement.


SIMON: The piece had its premiere in 1937. Did it achieve what Shostakovich hoped for?

ALSOP: Well, I think it did more than achieve what he wanted. This is a landmark piece for Shostakovich and it was much more than a piece of music. This was really a matter of life and death for Shostakovich. And with this piece he manages to really retain his own integrity. He's true to himself and yet at the same time he's able to once again get back into the good graces of the authorities, you know, whether he wanted that or not. It was a matter of survival.

WERTHEIMER: Marin Alsop - speaking with NPR's Scott Simon about the "Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich. The maestro will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in performances of the work next weekend. You can read Marin Alsop's essay on Shostakovich and hear more of the fifth symphony at our website nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "SYMPHONY NO. 5") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.