Monday, December 28, 2009

Music For Revolutions

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

(This was a small bit I wrote for a music list serve I belonged to with a couple friends of mine over the summer. At the time I entitled this share 'Music for a Failed Revolution.' A title that seemed apropos in June doesn't seem quite so much today.)

Shostakovich wrote his 11th symphony in 1957, four years after the
death of Stalin and a year after the Imre Nagy's failed uprising against the Soviet authorities. It was also the work which Nikita Khrushchev used to rehabilitate Shostakovich. For the nine years previous, Shostakovich had been considered such a pariah that nearly all his music was banned throughout the Soviet domain. Every night, the composer slept in the hallway outside his apartment so that the KGB would not wake his family when they came for him.

(The second movement. The Asian Pacific Orchestra conducted, with a toothpick, by Valery Gergiev.)

Critical opinion has long been against this symphony for all the
reasons that it has long been against Shostakovich himself: the
construction is loose, the emotions are heart on sleeve, and there is
the vague suspicion that behind the music is nothing more substantial
than Soviet agitprop.

But critical opinion of Shostakovich began to turn roughly thirty
years ago. Shostakovich was barely in the ground when a Soviet
musicologist named Solomon Volkov published a book that purported to
be Shostakovich's memoirs. 'Testimony' told a very different story
than the one we were told to believed about Shostakovich. Rather than
a composer who set 'Das Kapital' to music over and over again,
Testimony tells of a composer whose every note was fraught with the
agony of being the only great artist left in the Soviet Union with the
ability to speak truth to power.

(The final movement)

Shostakovich's freedom as a composer was limited, but compared to the
scores of writers and artists killed for speaking their minds, it was
limitless. You can't say that a piece of music is about Soviet
oppression simply because it's in a minor key, or sounds angry. The
Soviet authorities used to append meanings to Shostakovich's music
that were commensurate with what they wanted to hear. But the Russian
people got very different messages.

The sub-heading of the eleventh symphony is "The Year, 1905." The
authorities were meant to believe that the symphony depicts the events
of the first, failed Communist Revolution. But being written as it
was only a year after the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the
hidden meaning was probably quite clear.

(the conclusion)

...posts are getting too serious lately. Let us resolve to bring the new year in with silliness.

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