Manage episode 276187929 series 1195590
From Erie Philharmonic Marketing Manager Brigit Stack
The term “protest music” typically conjures images and sounds of the 60’s folk and rock music that we come to associate with counter-culture and social movements of that era. But to anyone who’s ever listened to Dmitri Shostakovich’s music, the term applies to many pieces of orchestral music as well. In the orchestral world, in fact, there’s many instances of radical music – oftentimes without words – that spoke to political movements, uprisings, tragedies and more. Sometimes the music was composed posthumously, but it was nevertheless revolutionary and sometimes dangerous to publish or perform.
Throughout the history of classical music, there is no better example of this than composer Dmitri Shostakovich. So much of what he wrote spoke to Joseph Stalin’s regime in what we now know as Russia and criticized it, even when the focus of his music was not outwardly named to be referencing that environment. Below I want to recommend some of what I believe to be the most powerful and daring music Shostakovich composed to protest the morally corrupt and apprehensible things he lived through. Much of Shostakovich’s music becomes clearly more relevant today and underscores how some of Russia’s history is playing out again in our current moment, standing as “protest music.” His music showcases that in times of strife and despair at a larger, governmental level, there are two types of this protest music: covert themes and musical styles and overt protest through topics and dedications.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
When Joseph Stalin was still reigning over the Soviet Union, Shostakovich often tried to hide his protests as hidden “covert” messages and themes in his music. One of the pieces that illustrated this was his Symphony No. 5. The piece was written after a newspaper article condemned his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. His opera was denounced in the newspaper Pravda, in an article titled “Muddle Instead of Music.” Solomon Volkov wrote, “the Party newspaper…carried out a sentence that was to be final (and not subject to appeal): ‘This is music intentionally made inside out…This is leftist muddle.’ As will be shown, these angry opinions belonged personally to Stalin, the country’s main cultural arbiter” (34). Shostakovich immediately began to fear for his life and his family’s safety, sleeping in the stairwell in case Stalin’s police came to take him away in the middle of the night. To illustrate the fear of dying in Stalin’s Soviet Union, “Someone said then ‘it used to be a lottery now it’s a queue’” (Volkov 213). Before his composition of the 5th Symphony, his older sister had been arrested and his mother-in-law sent to a concentration camp. His music was too vulgar and dark and Stalin wanted the Soviet Union and its history to remain in a positive light – whether it meant glorifying its heroes or more “optimistic” sounding music. Although the music has its darker moments, it ends with a triumphant and more positive tone/major key (the same key as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), keeping the overall message of the symphony tongue in cheek. This interpretation is depicted especially in the audience’s response to its premiere. “By the end of the symphony, the entire audience was standing, applauding wildly through their tears” (Volkov 150). The standing ovation was said to last for more than 30 minutes. The apparent “joyful” final movement of the piece turns around, however, and mocks the very thing Shostakovich was trying to save himself from. The terror felt by many under Stalin was so profound that even the joy and appreciation felt towards their leaders and country was often forced out of necessity and not true patriotism. Shostakovich later said, “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth [Symphony]. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Gudunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying. ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering. ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’” (qtd. in Volkov 183). News had also reached Stalin that Shostakovich was depressed and contemplating suicide after the Pravda article, which made him consider taking further action against him. Volkov wrote, “Shostakovich’s suicide could turn into an international scandal with unpredictable ramifications” (117). Shostakovich’s new symphony gave Stalin the chance to keep the composer around and still maintain his cultural authority – to praise the piece and set all back to normal, however terrifying that might still be for Shostakovich.
Shostakovich plays a fragment of Symphony No. 7 on piano
Another composition of Shostakovich’s that illustrates his covert protests of his government is Symphony No. 7, dubbed “Leningrad” and linked with the Siege of Leningrad by Hitler’s forces. Although the piece was mobilized as propaganda to bolster the war effort, it was composed under different intentions and still qualifies as protest music. The onset of the siege of Leningrad allowed him to hide his intentions even more, and Shostakovich also smuggled the piece outside of the country to be performed in the United States and England. Arturo Toscanini – an anti-fascist himself – premiered the piece with the NBC Radio Orchestra. The enemy within their own country was disguised as the enemy outside – the Axis powers now invading and terrorizing the Soviet Union. Due to Shostakovich’s son’s confirmation of events and the practice of “glasnost” (openness about Russia’s history) under Mikhail Gorbachev, much was revealed about the motives and messages behind Symphony No. 7. Testimony by Solomon Volkov was a contested source on so much of Shostakovich’s intentions behind his works, disputed by some to be Volkov’s words more than the late composer’s. Later, however, Maxim Shostakovich (his son) confirmed that many of the political views detailed were indeed his father’s. Musicologist Ludmila Mikheyeva claimed that the themes of this symphony were played for his students before the war with Germany even began. Later, Shostakovich said, “Even before the war, there probably wasn't a single family who hadn't lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under the blanket, so no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and the sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. It suffocated me, too. I had to write about it, I felt it was my responsibility, my duty. I had to write a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered. I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it” (qtd. in Volkov 172). The actual siege by outside forces simply gave the piece a disguise to wear as it expressed so much of the loss all, including Shostakovich, had felt.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich began using more overt methods to protest the brutality and mistreatment of people under Stalin and fascism. One of the most overt representations of this was his String Quartet No. 8., written and finished in 1960 in only 3 days. The dedication made his intentions clear: it was dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war,” and composed shortly after the composer reluctantly joined the Communist Party. His son, Maxim, claims the dedication was for all victims of totalitarian, fascist regimes while his daughter Galina claims that Shostakovich meant it for himself. Both interpretations have merit; many of the melodies of the string quartet were taken from Jewish folk tradition and although we often learn of the anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany, it was far more rampant than we think. It permeated the United States as well as Stalin’s Soviet Union. As Shostakovich had said, “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. It can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. Jews became a symbol for me. I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them” (qtd. in Civetta). His daughter’s interpretation carries the same merit because Shostakovich’s musical motif is repeated in every movement of this string quartet. This motif is known as the DSCH motif, standing for the notes of D, E flat, C, and B natural. In German musical notation this would be written as D, Es, C, and H, resembling D. Sch, or Dmitri Shostakovich. He often added it to his music to represent himself and it is no coincidence that he would be frequently represented in a piece dedicated to the victims of fascism and war: he himself was one. Since Stalin upheld these policies of anti-Semitism and often singled out Shostakovich’s music for its vulgar, dark nature, this composition after the ruler’s death was a breath of fresh air. It stands as a true protest against the pressures and sorrows Shostakovich had felt his whole life, feelings he often felt mutually expressed in Jewish music. The second movement especially mobilizes one to stand up for what is right, to take down that which oppresses and hurts and to perhaps understand through music other’s lived experiences.
Perhaps the most relevant and protest-oriented composition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s is his Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” The historic events that inspired it conjure images of the last few weeks of protests across our country and the world. The dedication of the piece is a telling enough introduction, with movements titled after the events of the 1905 protests and rebellion against the Tsar and the Russian monarchy. These protests proceeded the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin’s rise to power and the eventual leadership under Joseph Stalin. 1905 was a time of unrest involving everyone from the peasant to the working class, the military and more. One of the main events of this revolution was “Bloody Sunday,” where protestors led a march to the Winter Palace to deliver a petition to the Tsar. As they advanced, guards fired upon them, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Protests, strikes, and looting erupted once again in response. Tens of thousands of people would die as the government attempted to restore peace. The opening movement of Symphony No. 11 is titled “The Palace Square,” and introduces the foreboding sense of calm before the violence, which is depicted so well in the second movement, called “The 9th of January,” titled so after the event’s date. The third movement pays homage to those who perished as a result of Bloody Sunday, using the funeral march “You fell as victims,” while the final movement foreshadows that the seeds of the 1917 revolution have been sown.
The ending is both foreboding and yet triumphant – a warning and a rallying cry. Revolutionary texts were also heavily cited in the melodies of the movements, not lyrically, but the melodies were known by many as most people grew up singing or hearing those songs. One such song was the march “You fell as victims.” Another was “Rage, Tyrants,” which tolls, “Let our call thunder like a thunderbolt, […] As the sun of freedom will look from behind a cloud, - To death! To death! To your death, tyrants!” Symphony No. 11 was often called a “film score without a film,” because it so aptly and tangibly expresses through music the fear, violence, and oppression of the events on January 9. One could argue that so much of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music does. These overt protestations after Stalin’s death came as protests to his memory – to the history and glorification he wanted so much for the Soviet Union and himself. Shostakovich and his music outlived the cruel ruler, and helped to rewrite his image in the eyes of his countrymen and the world.
These symphonies and string quartets certainly connect to the many things we see protested and mourned today. Though we may not have Russia’s history, we have our own. We have the Boston Massacre, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the Freedom Rides, the Farmworker’s Union strikes, the March on Washington and many other events, including today’s protests. Although most of us might not live in fear of disappearing from our homes in the night, we still find ourselves fighting for some of the same liberties, freedoms, and comforts. Stalin saw arts and culture as an integral tool in emboldening and influencing the society around him – and he was right. At the same time that a piece of music could claim to bow its head respectfully towards a leader, it could also mock and hide its meaning in subtle ways and key signatures. We can mobilize music again to share our feelings and look ahead towards a time where we no longer feel the constant barrage of these negativities.
Perhaps most important of all, we can sympathize with and try to understand the pain and oppression of others. As conductor Kurt Sanderling said, “The quartets are messages to all his friends. The symphonies are messages to mankind” (qtd. in Anderson 374). Shostakovich managed to bottle up the visceral feelings of fear, pain, injustice, anger and sorrow and express them so often wordlessly through music. Music can once again be a revolutionary act to stand up, stand out and express things we often cannot put into words or share plainly and openly.
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