Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Problem of Shostakovich

I decided recently I was going to see what all the fuss was about, and immerse myself in the works of Dmitri Shostakovich.

If you don't already know by now but Shostakovich would have been 100 this year. His music has been everywhere, and most major orchestras, opera companies, radio stations and record companies have done something to commemorate this.

There is a strange quality to all of this. For years, the classical music industry, ever valorizing the glorious past, has taken to commemorating every kind of birth or death anniversary of our pantheon of great composers, usually singling out one in particular for special treatment, usually in the form of a boxed set of recordings with a woodcut or bronze of the composer's visage.

Most of us realise this is kind of absurd - is the 150th anniversary of Schumann's death less important than Shostakovich's 100th birthday, given their both quite dead? Nonetheless, as a way of focussing the mind, and the pocketbook, it's probably not a bad strategy, and it certainly makes the planning of orchestra seasons and recording sessions easier.


So, what about Shostakovich? I listened to his symphonies, his string quartets, his jazz suites, is piano concertos and some of his music for solo piano (all courtesy of the Naxos Music Library), so I feel I got a good sense of the man and his work. I had heard much of this before, I'd just never really paid attention.

Truth be told, I don't know what to make of him. I enjoyed the 15th symphony and 1st piano concerto, and I found the jazz suites a delightful surprise. The string quartets seem, to my ear, to be as close to Beethoven's accomplishment as anything can or will be - they are works of intense power.

Here's the problem. I cannot separate Shostakovich from his political environment. Indeed, I'm not sure anyone can.

When I listen to the 7th symphony, and find it wanting, my old musicology teacher whispers "Stalin" into my mind's ear and it acts as a balm for the aesthetic aches Shostakovich arouses in me.

Do we grant Shostakovich his greatness because of Stalin or despite him? It's hard to say, but the incessant repetition of his works, coupled with constant reminders of STALIN, over the past year has dulled my ability to think clearly about him. Indeed, some very skillful and prominent classical music bloggers have felt the same way about this, although they have more of a handle on the aesthetic issues than I do.

That I seemed to enjoy what would be considered some of his lighter works strikes me as telling - is this the real Shostakovich, the one unencumbered by Stalinism. Was his seriousness unnatural?

I just don't know what to think of him now. So that's where I will have to leave it until later. The COC performs Lady Macbeth in a few months, and I'll update my thoughts then.


Gawain said...

Dear LVD:

you do not mention, and perhaps have not heard, the two works of S which I think are his best: his preludes and fugues; and his piano quintet (the performance by Richeter/Borodin is absolutely amazing). that is really great music. his symphonies and concertos, imho, less so.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Gawain, indeed I have. In fact, I used to play the preludes and fugues. I did not listen to the piano quintet, and I will give it a listen.

I believe that part of the problem is my own. I find the issues around Shostakovich's relationship with the Soviet bureaucracy difficult, for reasons I cannot entirely explain, except to say that some of his work strikes me as good but not deep.

As I mentioned however, I think the Shostakovich-mania this year has more to do with marketing than aesthetic concerns.

In an odd way, his (and other russians') socialist realist style has wound up finding a surer home in the classical canon than any of the other 20th Century movements.

If I may be so bold, it seems to me that the Soviets won this thin sliver of the Cold War.

gawain said...

for the Qnt, the Borodin-Richter is the way to go. Though, like you, I am not too fond of S symphonies, I think I sympathize with a lot of his work's emotional (or should we say, intellectual) content: like a lof of Prokoffiev, S tends to the sarcastic and ironic; he lies, or perhaps, rather, one should say,
"illocutes", that is says one thing but means another; one has to listen to him the way one reads Japanese literature -- there is nothing on the surface, only glitter (or propaganda); the real content is for the intelligent who can hear it (the ones more intelligent than the censorship); i find him very tragic without being sappy; this is very manly music to my ears. i, too, only discovered him recently, but am a lot happier with my experience of him; as for the brouhaha, well, its brouhaha, try to ignore it. in this season we have to hear a lot of MEssiah, that dont make it bad. :) Happy new year, alt

Otto van Karajanstein said...

And happy new year to you! I will try to get that recording and give it listen.

And as you appear to be my only reader, I shall e-mail you my thoughts!

anita said...

I have always loved Shostakovich, in my twenties I rediscovered classic music (after years of avoiding, heard too much rehearsing in my immediate surroundings) and Shostakovich was the only one who's music went straight into my soul...