The Wide Spaces of Our Land
This was the original (eventually discarded” title for the third movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #7, and it was on my mind today as I walked the trails that run along the Niagara Escarpment just to the north of my house. Russia – the USSR – is known for these wide spaces–the endless steppes to the south, the vast tundras of Siberia. Canada, situated in the same northern latitudes as Russia, shares some of this geographical iconography, but most Canadians live much further south than most Russians. Hamilton, where I live, is situated at a latitude of about 43º north, as opposed to St. Petersburg (Leningrad), situated at almost 60º north. Just for comparison, that latitude marks the border between the western provinces of BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and the northern territories of Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut.
Like Leningrad, Hamilton is an industrial city situated on a port, although only about 1/4 the size that city was at the beginning of the siege, at least population-wise. From that escarpment trail, I can see the massive steelworks to the northwest, especially during these winter months when the trees are bare. I live in Stoney Creek, once a town of its own to the east of the city, but which was amalgamated into Hamilton in the 1990s. It’s not too far from the suburban streets I know to begin to find open spaces, although they are not truly wide–again, much as it would have been in Leningrad.
The third movement of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony is a slow movement, marked Adagio. If the first movement is the story of a city looking inward before being taken by surprise, and the second movement looks back, the third movement, as I hear it, looks out, planting the seeds for what will come in the final movement. This music has a cold, beautiful, open soundscape, glittering like ice. There is a dialogue, almost like Byzantine chant with a response in song– huge, crystalline fortissimo chords played by woodwinds and harps, to which violins playing in unison (supported by chords from the lower strings.) This section starts on a unison D, followed by a breaking D – A – F# chords that almost certainly features open strings for the D and the A, giving it an even more transparent feel. The two sections continue their exchange, gradually quieting from their initial fortissimo. And then the music steps outside, as it were, from an onion-domed cathedral to wander those wide spaces, as represented by first one, then two flutes, playing a poignant tune “suggesting a loneliness of silence”, as Mark Wigglesworth describes it. over pizzicato strings. Eventually the violins pick up this melody, turning it lush as a running stream in springtime, hanging on sevenths that resolve into major chords The initial string chorale theme returns, quieter, before unison strings crescendo in a dotted rhythm into an outbreak of fury. Again, Mark Wigglesworth:
Unlike the previous movement’s bitterness, this anger is one of passion. It is passion that ultimately has the greater success…. It is as if Shostakovich is saying that if we stick together we can survive. If we all sing, we can’t be beaten. The victory will be ours and the triumph of that is the entire string section playing the opening music of the movement. What had been cold, unrelenting and inhuman is now invested with every ounce of human joy. It is the emotional climax of the work.
Wigglesworth goes on to state that in the third movement, the people have learned the way to survive. Their passion is ignited, and it’s signified by the entry of the snare drum, where the music becomes more and more resolute (Shostakovich even directs that this section be played ‘resolutely”.) It culminates in nearly the entire upper section of the orchestra repeating the same two notes as the low brass underscore and then resolve to what sounds like a victory charge tune by the trumpets–it’s actually the same theme the violins played initially After all of this, the dotted rhythm moves into the low strings, and the wind chorale theme is stated again by winds and responded to by unison violins as quiet descends again. This time, the violas, with their lovely, deep, rich sounds, take on the melody originally played by the flutes, accompanied by harp chords creating warmth and the “human joy” Wigglesworth mentions. Whereas the initial theme sounded like a brook in springtime, this feels like the waving of a field of heat in the summer sun. The chorale and response return one last time–the former warm and gentle, the latter forte, before the chorale restates fortissimo, with gorgeous, warm, srting chords before dropping down to low woodwinds, which take us into the fourth movement with three tam-tam strikes over pizzicato strings. The sense of this movement for me is that I feel the enormity of the task before us, but I somehow have found the will to do what is needed.
As with the previous two movements, this one was written before Shostakovich was evacuated from Leningrad on October 1, 1942. This is not a retrospective work–it’s pointing at a possible way forward, back in the very earliest days. “My idea of victory isn’t something brutal,” Shostakovich said. “It’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction.” And yet, as we will see in tomorrow’s finale, that victory is shot through with the knowledge of just what that cost.
Reason over reaction. I ventured out after work today to pick up fresh fruit and veggies and a few staple items we hadn’t stocked up on yet. Those were in abundance, but fresh meat was almost gone, the bread aisle was 85% empty, and there were no eggs. And, of course, there was no toilet paper. And I can completely understand the panic, the frenzy that has descended upon people when they see a skid of toilet paper suddenly appear. I’m not sure I could resist grabbing a package myself should I see one, even though we have plenty. Such hoarding is a classic indicator of a siege mentality. Yet, at the same time, so is that other hallmark of a community under siege: unexpected kindness, a desire to look out for others. Here in Hamilton, a Facebook group has quickly coalesced of people offering to help out the vulnerable – the disabled, the elderly, the poor, or those with challenges of any kind–by running errands or sharing staples.
And there is music. I shared the video yesterday of the Italian tenor singing Nessum Dorma from his balcony, much like that solo flute did above. As I write this, I’m listening to YoYo Ma, who has posted a bit of solo Bach to Twitter, along with a message thanking health care workers. But now, ordinary people all over Italy, and in other places (such as Poland) are doing the same – emerging from their apartments and joining together in music and community.
And me? I rented a viola last year, one I’d largely ignored after a well-intentioned start. I think it’s time to make my own music once again, to learn a new thing that at the same time hearkens back to something that brought me great joy when I was growing up, and was the spark that, in a long journey, brought me to know the Shostakovich symphony I’ve been talking about.
I just found my missing rosin. It’s still mostly untouched, dark, amber-like, waiting for the touch of the bow.
I think I will start tonight.