Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thoughts on Dmitri Shostakovich's Babi Yar Symphony and Occupy Wall Street

Yevgeni Yevtushenko in the 1960s
A remarkable performance from August 2006 showed up on Youtube late last month. It is a rendition of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, by the Maryinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus, with bass Mikhail Petrenko, conducted by the great Valery Gergiev. The presentation was on August 19, 2006, at Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms series. The recording, in high definition video, and with superb sound, has subtitles. It is a stunning document.

I've written a little about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the fine arts here, covering, for instance, the Occupy Lincoln Center protests after the final performance by the Metropolitan opera of Philip Glass' opera about pacifism and civil disobedience, Satyagraha.  I wrote then:
I would like to see more artists involved in OWS in 2012 than has been the case this year.  It is certainly true that a lot of artists are involved, but they are mostly popular artists, with only a sprinkling of personalities or top names from the fine arts.

The reality that among the first victims of funding cuts in education and government agencies are fine arts programs and classes, and that this has been going on for decades, hasn’t been covered as much as it should have been.  Arts programs all over the country were the prototypes for moves designed to lower taxes on the 1%.
I've written a fair number of works that protest injustice, violence and environmental degradation. In America, protest music is generally associated with the realms of the blues, jazz, rock, rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop.  Classical composers who have joined in social protests through their works have been few and far between.  The modern American composer who suffered most for his political activities was the iconic populist artist, Aaron Copland.  He had the audacity to stiff Sen. Joe McCarthy's juggernaut.  When called to testify in front of McCarthy, here was part of the exchange:
[A]fter composer Aaron Copland denied ever having been a communist, McCarthy hectored the composer, "You have what appears to be one of the longest communist-front records of anyone we have had here."

Copland replied, "I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads, and I am not a political thinker."

Copland was never called to appear at a public hearing.
He was blacklisted from the film industry and other important venues.  A performance of his Lincoln Portrait for President Eisenhower's inaugural events was cancelled.

My own work, The Skies Are Weeping, got me denounced by Alaska Rep. Bob Lynn in front of a joint session of the Alaska Legislature.  Unlike Copland, I've still got my job.

But compared to the ordeals of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and thousands of Soviet artists from 1935 well into the 1960s, we were lucky, to say the least.

Shostakovich was twice purged during the Stalin years - in 1936 and 1948.  Had he not been the Soviet dictator's favorite film composer, he would have ended up in the Gulag by the late 1930s, to perhaps never return, as happened to many of his friends and relatives.  The best book on the subject is Solomon Volkov's 2004 volume, Shostakovich and Stalin.

Stalin died in 1953.  Although Soviet artists immediately felt relieved, the "thaw" resulting from Nikita Khrushchev's consolidation of power was partially facade, partially arbitrary.  Shostakovich, along with artists such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova sensed this, and pushed the envelope.  Shostakovich, having learned much from his previous experiences with dictatorial caprice, pushed back the most.  Some of his pushback was secret, but because of his popularity in the USSR and international prominence, he could push far harder.  And he did.

Beginning in 1959, with his song cycle, Satires, he openly criticized the apparatchiks and nomenklatura of the ossifying Soviet establishment.  Satires was immediately followed by his profound String Quartet No. 8 in C minor:
In 1979 a book appeared in the West entitled 'Testimony' which claimed to be the composer's memoirs, told to, and subsequently edited by, an associate, Solomon Volkov. The book was highly controversial because it showed Shostakovich not as the passive supporter of the Soviet regime, the role in which Western critics had placed him, but as a closet dissident. Protests followed the book's publication. It was first accused of being a forgery (which in parts it was), but it was also hailed as reflecting the spirit of Shostakovich's thoughts (which it is now generally believed to do).

Music critics also found much to ponder in the book because it included passages which upset their previously held consensus, like the one below concerning the Eighth Quartet.

When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of 'exposing fascism'. You have to be blind to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote 'Lady Macbeth', the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: 'Exhausted by the hardships of prison'.
This was followed by his 12th Symphony, which has always struck some as so over-the-top agitprop for the Soviet regime to be parody.  That is my take too.

The next work was his 13th Symphony, the subject of this post.  It should be pointed out that at some notable earlier premieres of major works by Shostakovich, the audience, by and large, knew that the composer had secret messages to resistors of Soviet power and excesses embedded into the themes and their treatment.  This has been well covered by major books on him published since the downfall of the USSR.  All that had been veiled, a shared dissidence. With the 13th, it all came out into the open.

Shostakovich had been inspired by the poetry of the young writer, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The latter's Babi Yar was the biggest hit among political poetry aficionados in the world of samizdat.  Then, startlingly, it was published:
Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Novy Mir, was considered a high point of the relaxation in Soviet censorship during the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev.
Here's a description of the poem:
he denounced the Soviet distortion of historical fact regarding the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev in September 1941, as well as the antisemitism still widespread in the Soviet Union. The usual Soviet policy in relation to the Holocaust in Russia was to describe it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, and to avoid mentioning that it was a genocide specifically of the Jews. Therefore, Yevtushenko's work Babi Yar was quite controversial and politically incorrect, "for it spoke not only of the Nazi atrocities, but the Soviet government's own persecution of Jewish people."
In composing the 13th Symphony, Shostakovich took poems, some not allowed to be printed, turned them into lyrics, and then presented the package in such a way it had to be performed in Moscow, and the Soviet authorities would be watched by the European and American cultural press in how they reacted.

The composer also set four other Yevtushenko poems, one of which they created together.  The Soviet authorities, when they realized what they had on their hands, tried to quash the premiere:
For the Party, performing critical texts at a public concert with symphonic backing had a potentially much greater impact than simply reading the same texts at home privately. It should be no surprise, then, that Khrushchev criticized it before the premiere, and threatened to stop its performance.   Shostakovich reportedly claimed in Testimony,

"Khrushchev didn't give a damn about the music in this instance, he was angered by Yevtushenko's poetry. But some fighters on the musical front really perked up. There, you see, Shostakovich has proved himself untrustworthy once more. Let's get him! And a disgusting poison campaign began. They tried to scare off everyone from Yevtushenko and me."

By mid-August 1962, Boris Gmyrya had withdrawn from the premiere under pressure from the local Party Committee; writing the composer, he claimed that, in view of the dubious text, he declined to perform the work. Mravinsky soon followed suit, though he excused himself for other than political reasons.  Shostakovich then asked Kyril Kondrashin to conduct the work. Two singers were engaged, Victor Nechipailo to sing the premiere and Vitaly Gromadsky in case a substitute were needed. Nechipalio was forced to drop out at the last minute (to cover at the Bolshoi Theatre for a singer who had been ordered to "get sick" in a performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, according to Vishnevskaya's autobiography "Galina: A Russian Story", page 278). Kondrashin was also asked to withdraw but refused.  He was then put under pressure to drop the first movement.
That wasn't the end of it:
Official interference continued throughout the day of the concert. Cameras originally slated to televise the piece were noisily dismantled. The entire choir threatened to walk out; a desperate speech by Yevtushenko was all that kept them from doing so.
As the music unfolded, the audience was overwhelmed:
The premiere finally went ahead, the government box empty but the theatre otherwise packed. The symphony played to a tremendous ovation.   Kondrashin remembered, "At the end of the first movement the audience started to applaud and shout hysterically. The atmosphere was tense enough as it was, and I waved at them to calm down. We started playing the second movement at once, so as not to put Shostakovich into an awkward position." Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who was present, said, "It was major! There was a sense of something incredible happening. The interesting part was that when the symphony ended, there was no applause at first, just an unusually long pause—so long that I even thought that it might be some sort of conspiracy. But then the audience burst into wild applause with shouts of 'Bravo!'"
Unlike all of Shostakovich's other major works of the time, the 13th was not rebroadcast or mounted throughout the nation.  The first commercial recordings came from outside the USSR.

It is a gnarly work, full to the brim of polemic and rhetorical gestures that, unless well-rehearsed and performed with full conviction, fall flat.

I'd heard of the 2006 proms rendition led by Gergiev.  Babi Yar has finally become available to the public in a brilliant presentation with English subtitles, almost 50 years after its creation.  Here it is, the most profound piece of protest art in the history of the Soviet Union:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

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