Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Rostropovich To Lead San Francisco Symphony In Shostakovich's Powerful Choral Protest Against The Soviet Government And For Religious Tolerance

Tomorrow, Friday, and Satuday -- March 30 to April 1, 2006 -- the great cellist, conductor, and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich will lead the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in the second of two all-Shostakovich programs celebrating the centenniel of Dmitri Shostakovich's birth. This second program will conclude with Shostakovich's powerful Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar in Russian, or Babyn Yar in Ukrainian), which is both a massive protest against life under the Soviet government, and a protest against official Soviet anti-Semitism. Twenty nine year old baritone Mikhail Petrenko will be the soloist in this choral work which sets poems by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Babyn Yar was the name of a large ravine in northwest Kyiv (Kiev), where the Nazis murdered about 34,000 Ukrainian Jews over a two day period on September 29 and 30, 1941. Over the following two years of Nazi occupation and terror in Ukraine, the Nazis would murder an additional 70,000 to 170,000 Ukrainians -- Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, atheist -- at the Babyn Yar execution site.


Program Note by musicologist Michael Steinberg

"The Symphony No. 13 was Shostakovich's last "public" work. His Symphony No. 14 is a chamber-musical song cycle on poems about death, and his Fifteenth and last is enigmatic, humorous, sweetly endearing, grim, and about as private as a symphony for normal-sized orchestra with quite a bit of extra percussion can manage to be....

Assessment of the music of Shostakovich's last fourteen years, the years after Babi Yar, has diverged wildly. To some listeners, the late works, especially the Second Cello Concerto, the last string quartets (especially the final four), and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth symphonies, have suggested the kind of transfiguration we associate with the last compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. (Titian, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Cézanne are among those who also achieved a sublime late style.) On the other hand, I once heard a conductor say that, after Babi Yar, the composer "no longer had any teeth." This esteemed interpreter of Shostakovich found much to admire in the last concertos and symphonies, but thought them not suitable for public performance, certainly not in this country, where there is "a lack of context." ...

Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar

It is said that the poet Franz Grillparzer once pointed out to Beethoven that he was fortunate the Imperial Austrian censors were not musical. Were they able to understand what was really going on in his music, he would surely find himself in jail. Shostakovich would have empathized with Grillparzer and his often despairing liberal contemporaries in the literary world as governments all over the Continent became more and more regressive after the end of the Napoleonic wars. He might also have envied Beethoven. Shostakovich himself never went to jail, but he knew what it was to be at odds with a tyrannical regime. And yet Shostakovich was lucky to be a composer and not a writer. Composers were thought ultimately harmless and, though harassed, bullied, and terrorized in various degrees, they lived. Poets, novelists, critics, and theater directors were treated as true enemies of the people, and they were silenced (like Anna Akhmatova), murdered (like Isaac Babel, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Osip Mandelstam), or driven to suicide (like Marina Tsvetaeva).

On the hectic fever chart of Shostakovich's life, December 18, 1962, the day of the first performance of the Babi Yar Symphony, is a date that registers extremes of high and low. The listeners in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory received Shostakovich, Yevtushenko, and the performers with an emotional frenzy remarkable even for demonstrative Russian audiences. Official response, on the other hand, was icy. No representative of the government attended the concert, a telecast was canceled, and Pravda confined itself to a single sentence reporting that the concert had taken place. When the Russian-American scholar Boris Schwarz asked to see a score at the Composers' Union, he was refused. A few more performances were given in 1963 and 1965, for which Yevtushenko's text had been revised—more of that below—but then the work dropped from sight in the Soviet Union. Eugene Ormandy was able to give the American premiere several years later only because Mstislav Rostropovich had smuggled a score out of the country.

Back in 1936, the authorities, including Stalin himself, had noted that Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District, a major public and critical success, was a seamy affair, not consistent with official ideas of what government-supported opera houses ought to be presenting. Understandably alarmed by the fierce attacks on him in Pravda, Shostakovich foresaw that his Symphony No. 4, meant to be introduced in December of that year, would be excoriated for its "modernism," which ran counter to the populist principles of Soviet Socialist art, and he withdrew the work, not releasing it for performance until 1961. Nor had it been difficult for anyone to perceive that the Symphony No. 8 (1943) was a dark—and in that sense deplorable—response to the war experience and that the Symphony No. 9 (1945), a Haydnesque comedy with a deeply serious slow movement, was anything other than the apotheosis of Stalin that was expected at the end of the war. In the Symphony No. 13, Shostakovich made things still easier for his political enemies. In it he used words whose sense the most unmusical person could not escape.

But Shostakovich ran into difficulties even before the first performance. The Khrushchev "thaw" had instilled some hope in Soviet intellectuals and artists, and the publication in 1961 of the Babi Yar poem and of Solzhenytsin's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at about the same time as the premiere of the Babi Yar Symphony were exciting and significant events. But the respite was brief. At the beginning of December 1962, Khrushchev saw an art exhibition in Moscow that had him spluttering incoherently about "abstractionists and pederasts," a theme on which he expanded at a press conference the day before the first performance of the new symphony. At the same time, Leonid Ilyichyov, the powerful Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, gave Yevtushenko an official scolding. The atmosphere was not good.

Shostakovich had become acutely aware of this in the course of trying to organize the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony. His original plan was to ask Yevgeny Mravinsky, who had conducted the first performances of the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Twelfth symphonies, to take on this newest one as well. It quickly became clear, however, that because Yevtushenko was so controversial, Mravinsky did not want to jeopardize his career through this potentially dangerous association. More painfully, it became clear that he did not have the guts to come right out and say so to Shostakovich, and it was left to the conductor's wife, a former Party official, to come up with an explanation, namely that her husband never conducted vocal music. "You must only conduct pure music," she told him. Shostakovich was also turned down by the bass who had been his first choice, Boris Gmyirya, for reasons too complicated to go into here, but about which he was quite open with the composer, who did not, therefore, perceive his decision as a betrayal.

Shostakovich next turned to Kiril Kondrashin, who quickly said yes. But that was not yet the end. Shostakovich first asked the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya to recommend a soloist. She suggested Alexander Vedernikov from the Bolshoi Opera. Vedernikov was thrilled to accept, especially after the composer had played through the work for him, but a few days later he called Vishnevskaya in deep embarrassment to say that he would have to withdraw, that he was a citizen as well as an artist, that he could not sing the Babi Yar text in public. The next candidate, also recommended by Kondrashin, was another young bass from the Bolshoi, Victor Nechipailo, but the manager of the Moscow State Philharmonic urged that a second singer be brought on board and coached, "just in case."

On the morning of the premiere, Kondrashin received two phone calls. The first was from Nechipailo, who said that he was ill and unable to sing. (Vishnevskaya tells a different story. In her account, a bass scheduled to sing King Philipp in Don Carlo at the Bolshoi that night was ordered to call in sick so that Nechipailo, his understudy, would have to sing—a command he could not refuse.) In any event, the symphony was sung by Nechipailo's understudy, Vitaly Gromadsky. Kondrashin's other call came from the Minister of Culture, who made heavily meaningful inquiries about the state of the conductor's health and whether there might be any reason he could find himself unable to conduct that night. Kondrashin dealt with him by playing naïve and refusing to pick up on any of the minister's hints. (All these stories are told in fascinating detail in Elizabeth Wilson's compilation, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.)

All the Yevtushenko texts that Shostakovich chose have bite, but the most problematic of the poems was the first, Babi Yar. That title is the name of the ravine outside Kiev where the Germans executed about 100,000 Ukrainian Jews in World War II. (It had in fact been Shostakovich's intention just to set Babi Yar as a brief cantata, and it was only when he had finished that much of the music at the end of March 1962 that he decided to extend the piece into the hour-long symphony it became.) Yevtushenko's issue is anti-Semitism. He begins, "There is no monument at Babi Yar." The official line was that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union (it was his belief in that untruth that caused Vedernikov to withdraw from the first performance), and it was therefore unacceptable to write a poem about anti-Semitism.

Further, the authorities wished to dilute the point that the vast majority of the victims of Babi Yar were Jews. They insisted that Yevtushenko rewrite the poem to say that the martyrs were Jews and Russians and Ukrainians, with no special emphasis on the Jews. Yevtushenko obliged—Vishnevskaya describes him in her memoirs as a man who "had learned how to pander to any taste, how to keep his nose in the wind, how to know when to bow and when to straighten up"—and Shostakovich was furious. As any composer would, he thought of the poem as no longer being Yevtushenko's but his and Yevtushenko's. The first Soviet performances after the premiere used the revised text, but the published score gives the original, which is also the one that the poet always recited in his public readings. (Since June 1976, there has been a monument at Babi Yar. The inscription reads: "Here, in 1941-42, German Fascist invaders executed over 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.")

Shostakovich responds intensely to his chosen texts and, just as the music illuminates the texts, it is the texts that tell us whatever we really need to know about the music. The first movement, "Babi Yar," is the largest, and the various chapters, as it were, of Yevtushenko's verses provide the composer with rich possibilities for characterization and variety of texture and pace—the reference to Captain Dreyfus, the evocation of the 1906 pogrom at Byalystok, the poet's imagined identification with Anne Frank. The Anne Frank episode—deliberately ungirlish with its bass solo accompanied by cellos and basses—is especially striking.

The second movement, "Humor," suggests the jocular world of the Ninth Symphony; the opening and closing tune is in fact taken from "Macpherson Before His Execution," a merry and despairing song (the adjectives are those of Robert Burns, who wrote the poem) in Shostakovich's Six Songs to Lyrics by English [!] Poets. If "Humor" is the symphony's scherzo, "At the Store," a compassionate portrait of Russia's women, is its grave slow movement (Adagio). The deeply ironic "Fears" begins as though it were a second such movement (Largo), but its text demands and receives a more varied treatment. "A Career," which might have given Mr. Mravinsky something to think about, is another essay in irony, its music detached, perhaps a little wan, wryly humorous. The coda, much of it for string quartet, its close colored by the soft ping of the celesta and of harp harmonics, is one of Shostakovich's most endearing pages."

-- Program note (c) Michael Steinberg for the San Francisco Symphony


Two Yevgeny Yevtushenko poems from Shostakovich's choral Symphony No. 13:

Babii Yar


Babyn Yar, Kyiv, Ukraine Nazi Killing Field, 1941-43; and Shostakovich in 1960.

Photo credits: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Shostakovich photo via the San Francisco Symphony web-site.


Blogger The Thunderbird said...

This piece of music will live on for as long as humanity lives.

6:56 PM  

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