Siege Diaries 3/28/2020


In the world we have lost, I am in Cincinnati.  I’ve dressed up in one of 1940s outfits and visited the gorgeous Netherland Hotel, and have likely already arrived at the gorgeous Music Hall.  In just about an hour, I’ll hear a Mozart piano concerto, followed by the Shostakovich 8th Symphony.

In the real world, I watched Andris Nelsons conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of the symphony this morning.  As with every one of these concerts I have watched, it was a revelation–particularly regarding a key instrument, the cor anglais or English horn.  I knew this was a larger double reed instrument, pitched between oboe and bassoon, but I had no idea how long it was!  The instrument has a gorgeous, long solo in the first movement, which was played beautifully.  The performance sounded to my ears much like Nelsons’ recording with the Boston Philharmonic, particularly in the ending to the second movement.  I had never seen Nelsons conduct before, and it, too, was a revelation–while he does have moments of intensity, his most typical expression is actually a smile–not a goofy one, but one that seems to revel in the gorgeousness of even this deeply moving music.

And it moved me to tears twice–at the beginning and the end of the fourth movement.  Shostakovich wrote this symphony in 1943, when the tide was beginning to turn for the Soviet Union after two years of loss and carnage–not just in Leningrad, under the siege, but in Stalingrad and all along the front.  This victory was costly.  And after the relentless third movement, the fourth starts with an outburst of emotion–a crash of cymbals and tam-tam, the statement of the passacaglia theme and a collapse into numbness.  All is muted, grey, quiet, the colour drained from the music. It is only the repetitive phrase of the Passacaglia that seems to move–but in hypnotic circles.  Except for a lonely horn, flutes and clarinets, there are no winds at all.  uFinally, towards the end, there is the flutter of flutes, and a long held note by the clarinets, sustaining the tension of the modulation into C major that begins the final movement.   This is the note about which Shostakovich said (per Mark Wigglesworth “‘My dear friend, if you only knew how much blood that C major cost me.’ He then fell silent and the violinist was left with the impression that he had ‘touched on something very sacred and private.’”

This was where shed tears a second time.  There is probably no other note in any of Shostakovich’s symphonies that means as much to me, as I have written before, but in these times, the impact was even greater–as was that of the final movement.  David Hurwitz says of this movement, which he calls one of Shostakovich’s finest, “If this symphony were about a ‘hero’ in the romantic sense, you might say he survives, seriously wounded….it’s scored with real delicacy, exuding an innocent sweetness that’s all the more heartbreaking as a result.”   This is the first of Shostakovich’s symphonies to dare to end quietly since his 4th, which, of course, had never been played publicly in 1943.  Unlike that work, with its harps and celesta allowing the work to trail off into a heavenly otherworld, this one ends with a quizzical flute line over quiet strings, per Hurwitz “an infinite horizon, stretching out past the point where the music actually stops” in C major.  Nelsons, as most conductors I have seen do, held the orchestra for what seemed like forever after the music trailed off, to add to this effect.

I confess until now, I’ve thought the final movement was the weakest part of the entire symphony, but on this listening I realized that the movement is perfect for what the rest of the symphony actually is.  Recovery after shock is rarely jubilant or ecstatic immediately–it’s warm, it’s tender, it’s gentle, acknowledging what has gone before.  In the Leningrad, the final movement is defiant, loud, proclaiming, “We’re still here,” even while the future is still clouded.  In the Eighth, it looks like we’ve survived, but there is a reluctance to truly celebrate quite yet.  Instead, there is pleasure in simple sweetness long denied, a tentative return to life, an embrace of fellow survivors, looks of shared experience.

We’re not quite there yet.  We still have that journey ahead of us. We’re still back in the third movement, probably about to enter the fourth. We still have the numbness to endure,  the mourning, the endlessly repeating cycles of loss.  We do not know how many times the passacaglia will repeat, or when we will finally hear that shift into C major, or how much blood it will cost.  The final movement awaits to awaken and console us.

Also, you now know part of the symbolism of the star badge that appears at the top of this post, and why I wear it over my heart.