Shostakovich and his symphony secrets


Only a handful of composers in the 20th century reached the kind of artistic heights that measured greatness in previous eras -- creating undisputed masterworks in genre after genre, gaining the admiration of music lovers from one generation to the next.

Dmitri Shostakovich belongs to that select group.

Born in St. Petersburg a century ago tomorrow, Shostakovich remains a subject of fascination and respect 31 years after his death in Moscow.

He continues to speak to us, sometimes in the clearest and most direct of voices, sometimes through a veil that leaves us wondering exactly what might be behind the notes.

His music is unmistakably, proudly Russian in character, yet only rarely nationalistic in the baser sense of the word.

It is just as unmistakably, proudly tonal in style. Though Shostakovich lived through political revolution, he never went near the musical revolution and experimentation that drew in so many of his contemporaries in the West.

Although Shostakovich could write pieces full of light and wit and charm, the overriding quality in his creative output is a deep seriousness. This is a composer of conviction. And truth.

"Feelings of love, hate, happiness, fear, sadness -- they are the same everywhere," says Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, by phone from St. Petersburg.

"Like in all great art of previous centuries, my father's music deals with those human feelings," he says. "I think people understand great art, maybe not directly. But, on some level, they can understand the feeling behind it."

Pianist and conductor Maxim Shostakovich, 68, is scheduled to conduct a program of his father's music tomorrow night in St. Petersburg with the city's famed St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

The music director of that orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov, also 68 and an old friend of Maxim Shostakovich, will contribute to the centennial observances this week and next, leading Shostakovich-filled concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, his first as music director emeritus.

And, in November, Mstislav Rostropovich, 79, a good friend of the composer's (and the composer's son and Temirkanov, for that matter), will be in Washington as music director laureate of the National Symphony Orchestra in all-Shostakovich programs.

That's just a small portion of what is a global acknowledgement of the composer this season. Not that the world needed an excuse to program his music.

Shostakovich has never really gone out of favor, certainly not in the West. To be sure, in his homeland, the composer fell out of official favor more than once, so much so that he feared for his life. But those who concerned themselves only with the art of music were hardly swayed by tastes of the Soviet government.

Also speaking from St. Petersburg (through his translator), Temirkanov says that the popularity of Shostakovich "among the Russian people has, so far, remained always the same."

Maxim Shostakovich agrees. "There is a big interest in my father's music and his creativity in Russia today," he says. "Lots of books have come out. The attention is very good."

But with a new Russian generation growing up after the end of the Soviet state, it is possible that the music of a man who lived his whole creative life under that system (in more ways than one) may mean something different now.

"There aren't any horrors for the young people today, as there were for my generation," Temirkanov says. "They know about the horrors of the past, because they probably read about it, but I don't know if they get it. I don't know if the younger generation really gets Shostakovich."

Messages in music

What to "get" in Shostakovich has always been a matter of some debate.

Like all music, his can be heard on strictly abstract terms, a thing of notes and dynamics and tempos and structures. But, almost from the start, the composer's work was recognized by many to be something much more than that, something full of messages.

What those messages mean depends on the listener and the era. Just when you think you have an interpretation all figured out, you may have to re-think it. Something that sounded exultant can suddenly seem ironic, even bitter. Something that sounded straightforward and agenda-free can suddenly seem confrontational, even subversive.

"It is difficult to label music as political or not political," Temirkanov says. "But you can say that Shostakovich was a historian in his music. He was like Pimen [the chronicling monk in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.]"

Maxim Shostakovich echoes that point. "My father's music was like a mirror held up to his own time. It reflects what happened around him."

And so much happened.

From the almost sassy young composer who wowed everyone with his brilliantly colored first symphony in 1926, Shostakovich seemed to become a politically correct servant of the state, happy to supply music that reflected Soviet ideals.

But then, two years after the triumphant premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an astonishing opera filled with amoral characters and bitter truths, Shostakovich was denounced by the government. That 1936 attack, prompted by Stalin himself, effectively turned the composer from artist to martyr and symbol, inside and outside the USSR.

When Shostakovich returned to political favor the following year, it was with a symphony -- No. 5 -- supposedly fueled by contrition and mended ways. It was nothing of the kind.

Beneath the surface of the Fifth lies the unbowed artist.

At that symphony's premiere, Soviet party bosses and lackeys smugly applauded, convinced that they had taught a lesson to the upstart composer, who was now writing good old-fashioned, uplifting music with a nice, brassy, major chord finish -- music of the people, for the people.

But the actual people in the audience at the first performance were weeping. They heard and understood.

"To me, the ending of the Fifth Symphony is the most tragic major in music," Temirkanov says.

Maxim Shostakovich likewise hears in this music anything but a docile Soviet. "I believe the finale is my father's way of saying that he will never turn from his own way, he will stay the same man," says the composer's son.

'The music won'

Shostakovich was not out of danger, however. Another round of attacks came in 1948. Even after Stalin's death, the Communist Party machine could cause trouble for the composer.

"But, finally, the music won," says his son.

The fact that Shostakovich wrote occasional pieces that at least ostensibly celebrated the Soviet system makes some people uncomfortable to this day. But at no point was the composer's real voice ever silenced.

"I think that only in music was he absolutely honest," Rostropovich told the New York Times recently.

That honesty invariably found outlets in profoundly involving symphonies, concertos, chamber and vocal pieces, right up to the last Shostakovich composition -- the elegiac Viola Sonata of 1975, with its poignant references to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata.

Even the Soviet works have value, Temirkanov argues, especially The Song of the Forests, an oratorio from 1949. "The words are very positive about Stalin," the conductor says. "It is a glorification of the period, yes. But that is our history.

"When I performed it in St. Petersburg [after the fall of the Soviet regime], I received letters saying 'How could you?' In the audience were sitting people whose relatives had been in concentration camps. Some were crying because of these memories. But the fact is that Shostakovich had to write this piece, and Shostakovich couldn't write bad music, even if the text was revolting."

Art should perhaps not be about accommodation or compromise, but life has a way of changing the rules. Shostakovich was a survivor. That survival would have been rendered less significant had he ever lost his soul and become a manufacturer of aural pabulum.

"Regardless of the political situation of the Stalin era, there was always great feeling inside this music, great feelings about the fate of humanity," Maxim Shostakovich says.

"He was concerned with human fate in general. The Symphony No. 7, for example, is not only about World War II, but about wars which will be in the future."

It is possible to feel as if we know and understand Shostakovich, even on an intimate level, just because of what occurs in his work. But, as critic and music historian Paul Griffiths has written, "There could never be an explanation of music so riven and masked."

What about the composer himself?

"Getting to know him could be easy, and difficult," says Temirkanov. "Difficult because he was so modest and shy. He seemed embarrassed, maybe because he was a genius.

"But he was very friendly to everyone," Temirkanov says, "maybe even too friendly in a way, always very polite, very respectful. You could almost faint when you saw it. It was too much sometimes."

During his early conducting career, Temirkanov would get thank-you notes from the composer for programming his music. If he came to rehearsals, Shostakovich did not interfere -- "Not the way many other composers do," the conductor says.

"Only afterward, he might say to me, 'Maybe, maybe in this place ...' When I would ask him if I could do something differently, he would say, 'Do it as you feel it should be.' I never knew if he liked me to change it or not."

When those who knew Shostakovich speak of him, it is with a mix of awe and affection. "He was the most important man in my life, after my father," Rostropovich has said.

Maxim Shostakovich says it was "a great happiness to be the son of such a father. But sometimes it was very difficult, because I felt bad for him when there was pressure against him in the newspapers -- calling him a formalist and an enemy of the people, etc., etc."

For all of the anxiety such attacks caused, the composer held on, drawing on what must have been enormous inner strength -- and another useful trait.

"He had an absolutely incredible sense of humor," says Temirkanov. "But Shostakovich's sense of humor wasn't just for the sake of laughing. There was always a twist in it, a sting."

The same could be said of so much of his music -- a twist, a sting. The truth, after all, can hurt.


Local highlights of the Shostakovich centennial season include:

THURSDAY / / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Yuri Temirkanov, conductor. Symphony No. 5. Music Center at Strathmore. 410-783-8000 or baltimore

FRIDAY-OCT. 1 / / BSO, Temirkanov. Tahiti Trot, Piano Concerto No. 2 (Yefim Bronfman, soloist), Symphony No. 10. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. 410-783-8000 or

WEDNESDAY / / Monument Piano Trio. Piano Trio No. 2, Seven Romances on Poems by Blok (Janice Chandler, soloist), Symphony No. 15 (chamber version). Peabody Institute. 410-659-8100, ext. 2, or

SATURDAY / / Wendy Warner, cellist. Cello Sonata. An die Musik, Baltimore. 410-385-2638 or

OCT. 21 / / Peabody Symphony. Hajime Teri Murai, conductor. Symphony No. 4. Peabody Institute, 410-659-8100, ext. 2, or

Oct. 25 / / Kirov Orchestra. Valery Gergiev, conductor; Symphony No. 11. Kennedy Center. 202-785-9727 or

Nov. 2-4 -- National Symphony Orchestra. Mstislav Rostropvich, conductor. Violin Concerto No. 1 (Maxim Vengerov, soloist), Symphony No. 10. Kennedy Center. 800-444-1324 or / nso /

Nov. 9, 10 -- NSO, Rostropvich. Piano Concerto No. 1 (Martha Argerich, soloist), Symphony No. 8. Kennedy Center. 800-444-1324 or / nso /

Nov. 11 -- NSO, Rostropovich. Cello Concerto No. 2 (Yo-Yo Ma, soloist), Symphony No. 8. Kennedy Center. 800-444-1324 or / nso /

Feb. 4 -- Kirov Opera. Valery Gergiev, conductor. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (concert version). Kennedy Center. 800-444-1324,

Feb. 5-7 -- Emerson String Quartet. Quartet Nos. 1-8; Piano Quintet (Joseph Kalichstein, pianist). Kennedy Center. 800-444-1324,

Feb. 17 -- Concert Artists of Baltimore. Edward Polochick, conductor. Piano Concerto No. 1 (Brian Ganz, soloist). Gordon Center, Owings Mills. 410-625-3525,

April 28 -- Alexander String Quartet. Quartet No. 2. Smith Theater, Howard Community College. 410-480-9950,

May 12 -- Konstantin Scherbakov, pianist. 24 Preludes and Fugues. BMA. 410-516-7164,

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