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Shostakovich - Symphony No. 5 Cello Concerto No. 1

David St. George

A Note from the Conductor


On 28 January 1936, Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, published
an editorial entitled 'Muddle instead of Music'. It ran in part: 'The listener
is flabbergasted from the first moment of the opera by an intentionally
ungainly, muddled flood of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of musical
phrases, drown, escape, and drown once more in crashing, gnashing and
screeching. Following this "music" is difficult, remembering it is
impossible.' The subject was Shostakovich's internationally successful opera The
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the author, it now appears, was none
other than Stalin himself. Overnight the 30-year-old composer's rapidly
ascending star plummeted. He came to regard himself, and to be regarded, as a
doomed man, waiting with packed bags for the secret police to take him away
during the night. In fact, the police never came, but the fear of official
reprisals for any displeasure which his music might occasion coloured every
moment of his life after that. He was never to know freedom again, except
surreptitiously in some of his music.


Shostakovich withdrew the Fourth Symphony from its scheduled performance and
began the composition of a fifth which had as its subtitle, 'An Artist's
Practical Answer to Just Criticism'. His intention was to reinstate himself,
through this work, in the eyes of the Politburo. The Fifth Symphony did indeed
do that: the first performance was a huge success. It is anything but cheerful:
the first movement is dark and foreboding, the second is ironic and brittle, and
the third a deep song of sorrow. However only the message at the end was
important to the Soviets, and Shostakovich knew that. The long last movement, as
they heard it, climaxed in a triumphant march, a paean of praise to the Soviet
State.


The musical director conducted a faithful first performance, but for one
thing. He, and a generation of conductors who followed, missing the clear
indication by Shostakovich that the concluding section of the symphony was to be
played at f> =176, a very slow tempo, conducted it at twice the indicated
speed. One edition printed in Russia changed the metronome marking to J =176,
doubling the tempo because the editor unquestioningly assumed that Shostakovich
had made an error. However, when the final March is played at the tempo
indicated in the score, the joyful celebration heard at the faster tempo turns
into a scream of pain, a crying out against a , relentless and inhuman force.
This was Shostakovich's message to the world, one that for all his fear he knew
he could risk encoding into the text, confident that the eagerness of the Soviet
authorities to hear what they wanted to hear would keep them from hearing the
subversive message that was actually there.


Years after the first performance, the great Rumanian conductor Sergiu
Celibidache wrote a letter to Shostakovich from Switzerland asking the question
'Is the tempo marking f = 176 correct at the end of the Fifth Symphony?' He
received a postcard from Moscow, unsigned. On it was a single word: 'Correct.'


Benjamin Zander


SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Symphony No. S in D Minor, Op. 47


An artist-barbarian with a drowsy brush Blackens over the painting of a
genius And his lawless drawing Scribbles over it meaninglessly. But with the
years the alien paints Flake off like old scales;


The creation of the genius appears Before us in its former beauty. Thus the
delusions fall away


From my worn-out soul, And there spring up within it visions of original, pure
days.


- Pushkin


The above poem, Rebirth, was set to music by Shostakovich in December 1936 as
the opening of his Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, Op. 46. Eleven months
earlier Shostakovich had, on Stalin's instructions, been savagely attacked for
the supposedly pornographic and modernist excesses of his opera, The Lady
Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. This famous Pravda article appeared under the
title 'Muddle instead of Music'. The various attacks that followed included an
article condemning his ballet The Limpid Stream, as well as a number of more or
less public threats. There were also threats transmitted privately through
'friends' and colleagues. The composer was all too aware that his life was in
danger. We are told that at this time and for some time afterwards Shostakovich,
like others at that unhappy period, took to sleeping by the door of his flat; he
did not wish the children to be woken by his being arrested in the middle of the
night.


During all of 1936 and most of 1937 he was under immense pressure. On the one
hand, this was a time when, in Anna Akhmatova's words (from a poem dedicated to
Shostakovich), 'the last friends had turned away their eyes', and many of his
colleagues were behaving almost as though he did not exist. On the other hand
there was a clear atmosphere of expectation on the part of the authorities, who
were waiting for the composer to humiliate himself, to admit his crimes and
declare himself ready to knuckle down to the business of writing only that music
that others had deemed he should write.


It was against this sombre background that he sat down to compose his Fifth
Symphony. And it was against this background too that after his new work had
been given a triumphant first performance on 21st November 1937, it was
famously, although anonymously, described as 'A Soviet artist's practical
creative reply to just criticism'.


We have moved a long way from the bad old days where audiences (and, even
more, conductors) apparently imagined that the finale of this Fifth Symphony was
indeed just a vulgarly optimistic apotheosis, a craven celebration of Stalinist
power. We can feel the obvious truth of Shostakovich's own comment (reported by
Solomon Volkov in Testimony) that:


'I think it's clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is
forced, created under a threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were
beating you with a stick end saying: "Your business is rejoicing, your
business is rejoicing", and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering,
"Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing." People who
came to the premiere of the Fifth in the best of moods, wept.'


We can also now see that there might well be some truth in the report that
Shostakovich himself agreed to the subtitle 'A Soviet artist's practical
creative reply to just criticism'. It would have been utterly characteristic of
this supremely ironic man to have done so. The symphony is indeed his
awe-inspiringly creative reply to criticism, as well as being the only reply
that was practically possible for him. As for those adjectives 'Soviet' and
'just,' their tawdry hollowness is now as audible as the similar hollowness of
the march in the symphony's finale.


To anyone who already knew Shostakovich's music and who heard this work at its
first performance under Evgeni Mravinsky in Leningrad in November 1937, it must
have been clear even from the opening notes that here was an artist who had
entered upon a new field of experience, a new way of listening and a new way of
making other people listen. After the childlike brilliance of the First
Symphony, the experimental uproar of The Nose and the Second and Third
Symphonies, and the intoxicated inventiveness and melodrama of The Lady Macbeth
of the Mtsensk District (not to mention the Fourth Symphony, which as yet no one
had heard), here was something different again; a symphonism overpowering in the
precision and unity of its form and in the simultaneous concision and profusion
of its detail, utterly original in its grasp of thematic identity and contrast
as well as in its manipulation of extended development and long-term harmonic
structure, while at the same time (and for the first time in this composer's
work) engaging with the greatest of models in our musical culture... with Mahler
(with his Sixth and Ninth Symphonies especially), and, through Mahler, with
Beethoven.


The first movement begins with music that is both a slow introduction and the
symphony's exposition ('exposing,' incidentally, the material not only of the
first movement, but, as it later turns out, of the other three as well). Quite
near the very opening, just after the first four bars or so of jagged dotted
rhythms, there begins a rocking accompaniment in the lower strings over which the first violins enter with the symphony's first quiet suggestion of a
melody, a descent from A to D, but the fourth note of the phrase is not an E natural (which our ears would expect) but an unexpected E flat. One need not be a musical analyst to feel the power and logic of the way in which the composer
takes the listener on a journey from the bitter-sweet experience of a single 'wrong' note to the bitter-sweet experience of a whole complex but profoundly
organised symphonic world.


In a classical symphony a slow introduction would typically lead to the fast music of the first movement proper. And so it happens here, except that as the
composer has already introduced us to his main themes and ideas, the fast music,
towards which the slow music gradually and subtly accelerates, turns out to be
already the movement's development section. Such a direct physical play with our
conventional expectations of the rhetoric of symphonic architecture was
something that was subsequently to become typical of the mature Shostakovich.


Incidentally, one of the most carefully organised aspects of this symphony is
the matter of the measurement of pulse. The composer took extraordinary care
with his metronome specifications to indicate how the inexorable acceleration
towards catastrophe is to be achieved in performance.


Interestingly the Scherzo, in A minor and marked Allegretto, sets off at ~ =
138, which is exactly the same as the speed of the climax of the first
movement's development, in other words, the Scherzo is taking off from the point
where that development had left off. And although the quite new character of the
second movement (with its almost startling likeness to a Mahlerian Lrindler )
might seem a long way from the world of the first movement, as Shostakovich
begins to twist and turn his delirious fragments of triple-time dance music,
they begin to yield up echoes and memories of the earlier music.


For the slow movement in F sharp minor, Shostakovich takes the unusual step of
dividing all the violins into three equal parts, as well as dividing the violas
and cellos each into two parts. The resulting eight-part string texture
(including the double basses) is what gives the string writing of this Largo its
peculiar feeling of mass and sonority. Like the thematic material of the
Scherzo, the material of this movement, although it grows into a sonata structure of a
kind, also holds our attention by suggesting a network of affinities and
connections with the themes of the first movement. In particular the descending
five-note phrase with its bitter-sweet E flat from near the beginning of the
whole work reappears here, changing itself into a whole variety of new guises.


The last movement begins with that famous march 'as though someone were beating
you with a stick and saying: "Your business is rejoicing, your business is
rejoicing."' As in the first movement, Shostakovich takes tremendous care
to construct a precise and calculated acceleration through his metronome
indications. It is at the height of acceleration that the character of this
music suddenly changes. On paper at this moment there is a further acceleration,
but the real effect of the music is, if not actually slower, at any rate
something akin to that of a translation into another dimension of time. All
around us is suddenly gentle, spacious and lilting; the horror and the bombast
seem suddenly to have ebbed away. And the high strings are heard rocking
backwards and forwards on two notes.


This rocking figure, a gentle oscillation on two notes, is an idea that recurs
again and again in Shostakovich's work, and is usually a reference to one of the
most famous moments in Russian music, a moment from one of Shostakovich's
favourite works, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The moment in the opera from which
the figure comes is the opening of the monastery scene, where the curtain rises
to reveal the chronicler-monk Pimen writing at his desk. The rocking seems to
suggest the old man's hand moving across the parchment page.


Pimen tells us (and here Mussorgsky sets almost exactly Pushkin's words) that
his task is almost done; that in his chronicle he has set out all that has
happened in his age so that future generations may read the truth of the crimes
of tyrants and the sufferings of the ordinary people. Pimen regards his work as
not merely history, but a vessel of judgement.


This by now characteristically Russian view of the political and moral
responsibilities of someone who writes things down, was probably first
enunciated by Pushkin here in this very scene. Amongst Russian musicians and
music-lovers it has now become almost commonplace to describe Shostakovich's
works as not merely music, but part of a continuous moral chronicle. We know from the accounts of his friends that Shostakovich himself came to see his
work in this light. So the reference to Pimen in his cell can be seen as a
signal that the composer is about to tell us something.


In fact, what Shostakovich tells us is two things. In the first place, he begins
quietly and inexorably to draw into the foreground of our attention memories of
ideas from the symphony's first movement. In the second place, he begins to make
comparisons between those memories and other curiously similar memories of
musical images from that little Pushkin song, Rebirth, which he had written only
a few months before, and whose text is quoted at the head of this note.


Now this is odd. At the time when the Fifth Symphony was first performed, no one
had yet heard the song. Therefore, either the composer intended his references
to the song as an entirely private message to himself, or he intended them, like
Pimen's chronicle, to become clear only later, to later generations.


In either event, what is evident is that beneath the central section of this
finale there is an implied text. The first fragmentary references are to the
second of the song's three verses. This is the verse which tells how, with the
passing of time, the crude daubings of the barbarian will dry and flake off like
old scales. The beauty of the original painting, which had been obliterated by
the barbarian, will become visible once more.


Gradually these sketchy references to the song's second verse transform
themselves into the clearer features of the third verse, 'Thus the delusions
fall away/From my worn-out soul', until finally, at the point just before the
return of the brutal march from the beginning of the movement, the strings
spread out into a radiant chord of B flat major over which the harp can be heard
playing almost the very music that, in the song, the piano plays to accompany
the words, 'And there spring up within it/Visions of original, pure days'.


So what did the composer do with the song's first verse, with its description of
the artist-barbarian crudely daubing over the painting of a genius?


The opening notes of the song, setting the words 'An artist-barbarian,' are in
fact exactly the same as the opening notes of this finale, the main theme of the
march that begins and ends it. In other words, this march is the march of the
artist-barbarian himself. It takes no great imagination to realise who, in
Shostakovich's mind, that great barbarian was, daubing crudely over the
creations of others and obliterating the beauty in his path. If this music is
played as it should be, following the composer's precise and detailed
instructions, then indeed its meaning will be clear: the march will seem like a
gross and hideous act of obliteration. We do not have to know the words of
Pushkin's poem to be moved by the weight of the catastrophe. It will seem almost
incredible that anyone could ever have been musically insensitive enough to have
supposed that this music suggested the smallest capitulation to the demands of a
tyrant.


And yet, if we do listen to the words as well, if we do lend our ears to the
necessarily secret message (to himself as much as to others) that Shostakovich
in 1937 hid beneath the thunder of his music, we will find, oddly and ironically
enough, that there is a quality of affirmation at the end of this symphony,
albeit an affirmation of a kind utterly other than the one that was being
demanded of him.


For Pushkin's original words, the words to which Shostakovich had turned at a
moment of extreme darkness, are words of triumph, words of trust that, like the
chronicle of Pimen itself, the real work of art will survive to re-emerge in
time with its original qualities, its 'beauty, truth, and rarity', as unsullied
as on its first day. It is part of the strangeness of Shostakovich's finale that
no amount of histrionic tub-thumping in D major on the part of the enraged
barbarian can quite obliterate the radiance of that earlier moment, minutes
before, when Shostakovich had conjured up in his own mind his private memories
of a tiny Pushkin song, Rebirth, written at the very beginning of what was a new
period, a new way of thinking and feeling, both in his life and in his music.


Adapted from a programme note by Gerald McBumey


Shostakovich (1906-1975 )


Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1, Op. 107


It has been suggested that Shostakovich wrote his First Cello Concerto (1959) at
least partly in response to the brutal campaign of vilification that the Soviet
government launched against the poet Boris Pasternak when he circumvented the
ban on Dr. Zhivago by having it published in the West in 1958. The furore that
this act provoked among Soviet dignitaries was exacerbated to the level of
dementia when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize. Their program of
intimidation and excoriation was successful - Pasternak declined to accept the
award and, many say, was so weakened by what he suffered at the hands of the
authorities that the effects of the affair brought on his death a year and a
half later. We will probably never know what part the Pastemak frenzy played in
Shostakovich's vision of the First Cello Concerto, but it is certain that he
felt deeply the pain and terror that the poet was experiencing; he himself had
been in Pasternak's shoes, and more than once. It is also a striking fact that
this concerto immediately follows the Eleventh Symphony, of all Shostakovich's
mature symphonies the most extended, diffuse, and politically correct (in the
Soviet sense). A greater contrast can hardly be imagined between that meandering
muddle and the white-hot intensity and conciseness of the First Cello Concerto.
In all likelihood there was an external stimulus, quite possibly the Pasternak
scandal, perhaps something else, that prompted Shostakovich to compose another
of his great works of outrage and political protest - as usual, camouflaged for
self-protection.


The piece begins harmlessly enough - just a four-note motive, the second and
third notes of which seem oddly 'wrong' repeated several times by the cello, and
answered by an anapaestic rhythm in the wind. The orchestra is fairly small;
there are no brass except for one underemployed horn. The first theme - the
four-note motive, and its sympathetic if gruff continuation, together with the
anapaestic accompaniment rhythm - is developed at some length and with ever
greater urgency. Finally a new theme is admitted a sort of keening on the cello,
hovering around one note, and then developing into a gasping cry. The anapaestic
rhythm continues in the orchestra as a binding thread throughout the movement.
The crying second theme in the cello mounts ever higher in the instrument's
register, until it takes on a terrified, almost crazed quality. There is hardly
a rest written into the cello part; it is as if he were playing for his life - one moment of silence would be his doom. At the end of
the exposition the clarinet in its high register takes over the second theme,
giving it a curiously incongruous, folklike feel, while the cello continues to
bow away madly at an accompaniment figure derived from the second half of the
same theme.


At this point, the start of the development, the horn, silent until now,
suddenly springs out of the orchestra, as if it had been lying in wait, and
blares out the four-note motive from the opening. The horn part is confined
exclusively to the two main themes of the movement, without variation from their
original form. It plays in alternation with the cello, not in dialogue, but
rather as if it were stalking its prey. At the climax of the recapitulation the
two instruments play together unaccompanied, both of them at the height of their
intensity; then the horn falls silent but the cello plays on, maniacally,
without an instant's respite, even when, near the end of the movement, in
pianissimo, it barely appears to have the strength left to go on. The
overwhelming effect that this movement makes is due in part to the extraordinary
nature of the musical material itself, and the unique deployment of the French
horn, the tone of which is perfectly calculated to strike the fundamental note
of terror. But equally important is the economy which Shostakovich has exercised
in the deployment of his material - just two basic themes and an accompaniment
pattern furnish all the music of the movement. The material is varied,
recombined, juxtaposed and reharmonized, but the severe limitation on the
quantity of the motivic matter and its endless reiteration plays a significant
part in creating the obsessive, frightened, harried quality of the soloist's
part.


The remaining three movements are played without a break, and seem to function
almost like commentaries on the first movement. The second movement, in ABA
form, begins with a brief introduction in the strings that comes back several
times like a ritornello - the beauty of its gently expressive part-writing
deserves special mention. After a brief echo of the opening on the solo horn the
cello enters with an infinitely tender melody, really a lullaby, accompanied
softly by the strings. The clarinet picks up the melody after a while and, as in
the first movement, this seems to intensify its folk-like quality. A return of
the ritornello very softly in the strings ushers in the second theme on the
cello, more like an arioso this time, broken by sobs. In the B section,
staggered chords in the winds accompany an even sadder song on the cello, as if
ground out by the barrel organ of the soul. The music in this B section rises to an unexpectedly
intense, grief-stricken climax, in which accompaniment patterns in bare fourths
and fifths intensify the stridency. The ritornello reappears one more time, now
fortissimo in the whole orchestra, and at its climax the solo horn rends the
fabric with a tremendous restatement of its opening bars. From here to the end
the movement is taken up with an eerie repeat of the lullaby, played in
alternating duet by celesta and cello harmonics. If there had been some vision
of childhood innocence or security at the first appearance of the lullaby, here,
at the end, it has become a dim memory, or just an illusion.


The third movement, written for the cello alone, serves as a cadenza for the
entire concerto as well as a transition between the second and fourth movements.
At the beginning neither tempo nor mood is altered from the closing of the
second movement. The cello picks up melodic material from what has preceded and
develops it - not really in the manner of a cadenza, however, but in the more
thorough, deliberate and systematic manner of a real symphonic development. The
mood is darkly contemplative, punctuated by frequent silences. Very gradually
but steadily the tempo quickens and fleeting references are heard to the motivic
material of the first movement, dealt with very acrobatically in this new
context, and the cello runs headlong into the final movement.


The Allegro con moto is a sonata-rondo in which some of the thematic material,
especially the rondo theme and the first episode, bears thematic and modal
similarities to Shostakovich's Jewish-influenced music - several movements of
From Jewish Folk Poetry spring to mind, as well as parts of the First Violin
Concerto and the harrowing dance-of-death finale to the Second Piano Trio. The
Jewish influence in Shostakovich's music, so pronounced in some works of the 40s
and 50s, invariably occurs where Shostakovich is focusing his attention on the
victims of political oppression. The strident, hectoring orchestration,
dominated by the wind in their high register, is like a heckling, threatening
mob, forcing the soloist to dance to their tune. And he does - he leaps and
cavorts and capers, just as he is told. The four-note motive from the first
movement returns in a virtual scream by the horn, and in the final pages that
music and the semitic-sounding rondo theme are contrapuntally intertwined while
the soloist does virtuoso, crowd-pleasing handsprings.


Shostakovich's works represent a personal biography and a musical record of the times he lived through. His artistic enterprise was to ask great questions, grapple with great problems, and give them enduring artistic form. It was not his purpose to provide ultimate answers, and there is often an open-ended quality to his works; formally, they achieve a perfect closure, but the ideas they engender cry out for further discourse. So this final cruel image of the gesticulating, helpless protagonist, whether Pasternak, Shostakovich himself, or the Russian spirit, is not the composer's final word. Fortunately for us he was granted another fifteen years to go on questioning and creating. He used those years well.


David St. George





   


 
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