Thirteen is, by popular conception, an ill-starred number. The Thirteenth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, however, managed to overcome nearly every obstacle thrust in its way Written in 1962, the 13th is often known by the name Babi Yar, after the title of the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that provides the text for its first movement. The other four movements are also settings for four more of Yevtushenko’s poems, “Humour”, “In the Store”, “Fears”, and “A Career.” Together, the five poems present a glimpse into life in the Soviet Union in the 60s as the age of the Thaw under Kruschev came to a close. Any one of these poems might have resulted in a trip to the gulag–or worse–in 1937 or 1948 under Stalin, in particular “Babi Yar”, which concerns the site of a massacre of Jews by the Nazis during WWII, but is broadly about anti-Semitism in general. The symphony is by far the most overtly critical of Soviet society public work that Shostakovich ever wrote (this after he was coerced into joining the Communist Party) and the fact that it was performed publicly at all was a minor miracle. First, Evgeny Mravinisky, who had conducted many of Shostakovich’s premieres (and to who the 8th symphony was dedicated), pulled out of conducting the work (and in doing so, did irreparable harm to their friendship). And then, the bass who was slated to sing for the premiere also backed out at the last minute; but cleverly, Shostakovich had a backup singer ready. Pressure was put on Kirill Kondrashin, the young conductor who had stepped in to direct the premiere, to cancel it even on the day the premiere was slated to occur. After two performances (to tumultuous ovations), it was understood that the work was “unofficially” banned, at least until Yevtushenko, under pressure, rewrote the text to “Babi Yar” to include words that included Russians among the victims of the massacre. However, cellist Mstislav Rostopovich was able to smuggle out the score so the symphony could be performed in the West.
The Shostakovich Thirteenth is not a complete rarity when it comes to performances, but ranks somewhere in the middle tier, well below the warhorses that are the 5th and 10th Symphonies, but also well ahead of the “lesser symphonies” (2, 3, and 12) and the “hidden gems” (4 and 14). I had expected to have to wait until Andris Nelsons put it on the schedule with the BSO for his cycle of all of the Shostakovich symphonies, but then it popped up in Montréal for conductor Kent Nagano’s final year with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (or Montreal Symphony, for us Anglos). We’d just been contemplating a vacation to Montréal and Quebec, and so I eagerly bought a ticket.
Montréal, mon vieux ami. I hadn’t been there since 1976, just after the Olympics, when I had convinced my parents to take me to see the places I’d seen on TV (particularly the site of Nadia Comaneci’s gymnastics victories). We toured all the venues, rode a horse-drawn carriage up Mont Royal, and Dad traded for years on stories of snooty waiters who ignored us when we couldn’t speak French. But despite living for most of the past 30 years in the Toronto region, I hadn’t yet ventured up the 401 for a return visit.
The OSM is another old friend, the first major symphony orchestra I ever saw, on tour in 1988 at the Mershon Auditorium at Ohio State. I don’t even remember what they played, but this was during Charles Dutroit’s long tenure. Dutroit is No Longer Spoken Of, neither in Montreal (where he left abruptly in 2002 when, as it turned out, most of the orchestra hated him) or elsewhere, after multiple allegations of sexual harassment turned up against him in 2018.
Plans often change as time passes. Having spent more money than expected on earlier excursions (Iowa, I’m looking at you!) my husband and I decided to cut the Montreal trip to the bare bones and to cut out Quebec City entirely. That left a day to explore Old Montreal and the concert. So, after a gorgeous last-gasp-of-summer day wandering through archaeology, Art Deco, and the jaw-dropping Notre Dame basilica, after a lunch of French toast with raspberry topping and fresh fruit and a dinner at Subway where I ordered in French (to the great amusement of my husband), I headed back downtown.
The OSM’s home is La Maison Symphonique, which in its layout and acoustics reminds me of a slightly-larger Koerner Hall in Toronto. It’s a warm and inviting space, with lots of beautiful streamlined light-coloured wood. It was designed by architect Jack Diamond and completed by contractors SNC-Lavalin (yes, THAT SNC-Lavalin) in 2011. It also houses an amazing organ, which was played as part of the opening piece on the concert, a set of six pieces, some for men’s chorus and some for organ by Schoenberg. I quite like Schoenberg’s tonal music, which the pieces for male chorus were, but not so much his 12-tone works, which the organ pieces were. It seemed to me as if a cat had been turned loose on the keyboard, randomly prancing across the various keys. Also on the first half was an outstanding performance of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by a virtuosic young pianist, Denis Matsuev. All was going well. I chatted with the gentleman on my right during the intermission about Shostakovich and the work we were about to hear, as well as about the rather spectacular musical instrument on stage left (see below). And then…
The announcer came over the PA system, stating that Alexander Vinogradov, the bass soloist, was ill but would still be coming out to perform. And indeed he did, looking distinctly…off. He sat down in a chair for the opening bars—the brooding strings and winds, the sound of bells, the chorus intoning the words about Babi Yar, where no monument stands except for the bare cliffs. And then he stood up to sing. His voice was beautiful, if a little soft, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Too soon. Just a few words later, he put his hand on Nagano’s shoulder, and the music went silent.
They left the stage. The orchestra remained, as stunned as the audience.
We wondered whether they had a backup soloist. Maybe someone in the chorus? My hopes were raised briefly when one of the chorus members left his seat, but moments later, Nagano dispelled our hopes. There was no backup singer. But, he said, Shostakovich had written a symphony. The performance would go on…with no soloist. The words, projected above the stage, would have to suffice for the audience to accompany the music, silently. The chorus, of course, would sing where they were called for.
What followed was perhaps the most unique performance I will ever hear, one where the listener was forced to not passively receive the performance, but to actively engage in it, in silence. And for me, with my historian’s perspective, this silence spoke volumes, particularly in the two movements that address repression–the first (“Babi Yar”), and the fourth (“Fears.”)
In some ways, the words became more meaningful as the music underlying them rose to the forefront. There is a section in the first movement describing Anne Frank, a young girl, in love, denying that the Nazis are coming to break down the door. Imagine, if you can, the following. The italicized words were those given to the chorus, the only words I actually heard.
I imagine myself as Anne Frank,
Transparent as a sprig in April,
And I love, and have no need for phrases,
But I do need for us to gaze into each other.
How little one can see, or smell!
Leaves – we cannot have,
Sky – we cannot have,
But there is so much we can have –
To embrace tenderly in a darkened room.
“Don’t be afraid, those are the booming sounds
Of Spring itself. It’s coming here.
Come to me,
Quickly, give me your lips!”
“They’re breaking the door!”
“No, it’s the ice breaking…”
The soloist’s tune is light and girlish (as girlish as a bass can be), but it wasn’t until I heard this performance that I realized that the accompaniment never loses its air of dread, even when the celesta plays a sweet tune. And the music conveys the approaching danger before coming to a paroxysmal climax just before the chorus returns to the initial theme:
Over Babi Yar the wild grasses rustle.
The trees look sternly as if in judgement.
Here everything screams silently and, taking off my hat
I feel I am slowly turning grey.
And these words, silently:
And I myself am one long soundless cry.
Above the thousand thousands buried here.
I am every old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me will ever forget this.
I can picture the poet, wandering the derelict site of the massacre, silently, as I do.
The fourth movement, “Fears’, is one of those bits that’s often described as “the most frightening thing Shostakovich ever wrote.” It begins with a desolate, atonal tuba solo over the menacing roll of tympani, like distant thunder, and ominous low strings. The opening words are delivered, chant-like, by the chorus:
In Russia fears are dying
Like the ghosts of yesteryears.
Only on church steps here and there like old women
They are begging for bread.
And then, when the soloist enters, a desperate horn solo over trembling strings, before the thunder of the tympani returns. Most of the searching melody is with the soloist, so its absence leaves only the deep-set feelings the words invoke.
I remember fears being in power and force
At the court of triumphant lie.
Fears like shadows slithered everywhere,
Infiltrated every floor.
Gradually they tamed the people
And on everything affixed their seal.
Where silence should be, they taught screaming,
They taught silence, where shouting would be right.
And then here, as a muted trumpet sounds, as if at a distance:
This, today, has become distant,
It is strange even to recall it now.
The secret fear at someone informing,
The secret fear at a knock at the door.
The music scrambles and scurries with muted brass building to a climax where we hear the tympani sound in hurried beats, like a knock at the door. And then, perhaps the most chilling section in the entire piece, the strings buzz in ascending and descending phrases like a swarm of insects over chords on the harp and the sound of bells (evoking the bell at the beginning of the entire symphony), to underscore these words:
Then, a fear to speak to a foreigner;
Foreigner – nothing, even with one’s own wife.
And unaccountable fear, after marches,
To remain alone with silence, eye to eye.
The music here is the sound of fear made manifest–the buzzing in the brain, the pounding heartbeat, the cold sweat.
And then, with the strings col legno, the chorus enters with a jaunty tune, like a revolutionary marching song, illustrating in music the party line, the line Shostakovich himself was expected to take in composing, even as the words betray the truth :
We did not fear to build in snowstorms,
To march into battle under fire.
But we deathly feared at times
To talk to ourselves
We did not get demoralized or corrupted,
And it is not without reason
That Russia, having conquered her own fears,
Spreads even greater fear in her enemies
Again, the absent voice of the soloist, followed by a single line from the chorus before the movement ends.
I see new fears arising,
The fear of being insincere to the country,
The fear of degrading the ideas
That are truth in themselves.
The fear of bragging until stupor,
The fear of repeating someone else’s words,
The fear of belittling others with distrust
And to trust oneself excessively.
In Russia fears are dying.
As I write these lines,
And at times unwittingly hurry,
I write them with the single fear
Of not writing at full speed.
And the fears seemingly dissipate away, dissolving in the gentle swirl of flutes in the final movement, although humour cannot disguise the truth: fear, particularly for the fate of one’s loved ones, can put a brake to greatness and truth.
I would never say that the concert I heard did not disappoint me in some way. I would have surely have preferred to hear it as written. But it did surprise me, challenging me to listen to the work in a new way, to fully comprehend how Shostakovich tells the story not just with Yevtushenko’s profoundly moving poetry, but through orchestration and the music itself. In some way it took the words being silenced to appreciate that accomplishment, and I feel lucky to have had that unique opportunity. It has changed how I understand this symphony forever.
Before the drama of this concert unfolded, I was struck by the sight of an enormous instrument–seemingly a giant stringed bass–off to stage left. This, I learned in the program, was an octobass. It’s over 11′ tall, and reached up past the first balcony. As I’ve subsequently learned, it’s one of only seven in existence, and the OSM is the only orchestra to own one. Below is a video showing how the octobass is played and the notes it can achieve.
Here’s another video. This octobass is tuned a little differently than the OSM one. Just listen to that growl:
Note that, so far as I can tell, Shostakovich did not include an octobass in his score for the 13th symphony; he likely never even saw one, or even heard one–but it certainly added a layer of complexity to the performance of the work, which in many cases relies on sonorities deep into the bass clef, including a bass clarinet, a contrabassoon, and of course, the tuba.
And it’s made a hell of a conversation piece over the last few days.