Sometimes the universe, detecting your frustration at something that did not go as planned, points you at the thing you really need. As it turned out, the Shostakovich I needed was the 14th Symphony.
I decided to watch another concert on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall while I sat and pinned ties for homemade masks. It’s a tedious task, but not one that requires a lot of concentration. Flicking through the list of concerts I picked one randomly. I saw Neeme Järvi’s name, and knowing he is one of those remaining who, from his days as a conductor in his native Estonia, actually knew Shostakovich, I picked that one. It was Symphony #14–one on the list that I’ve never seen live. It’s a rarity–as much a song cycle as a symphony, dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who was particularly skilled at that kind of work. It’s scored for a tiny orchestra by Shostakovichian standards — just chamber strings and percussion–in keeping with the generally more stripped-down orchestration of most of his later works. And it’s one that I’ve never really gotten into–until now.
I’m going to quote David Hurwitz a lot on this one, because I think his description of the work is so bang-on.
This is Shostakovich’s most uncompromisingly grim symphony, but there’s more here than the usual description of it as “eleven poems about death.” Strictly speaking, the work isn’t about death at all: it’s about loss, protest and defiance, and death is simply the most powerful agent of loss. Shostakovich did not believe in an afterlife. He said on more than one occasion, both in his music and to his friends, that people’s deeds are all that remain after their passing, these will determine how they will remembered by posterity. Shostakovich also feared death and regarded it as an outrage, almost an affront–one to be opposed with all of one’s strength. At the same time, he recognized that the battle cannot be won. This is the confrontational philosophy at work in the Fourteenth Symphony.
Mark Wigglesworth adds:
At the premiere, Shostakovich overcame his usual shyness to explain to the audience that ‘life is man’s dearest possession. It is given to him only once and he should live so as not to experience acute pain at the thought of the years wasted aimlessly or feel searing shame for his petty and inglorious past, but be able to say, at the moment of death, that he has given all his life and energies to the noblest cause in the world – to fight for the liberation of humanity. I want listeners to this symphony to realise that “life” is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act.
This may be why this work rings so true to me–my views are not far off of Shostakovich’s. He was in the hospital during the period when he wrote the work in 1969, getting treatment for the mysterious neurological ailment that plagued his last 15 years, affecting both legs and one hand. Again, Hurwitz:
Unsure if he would live to complete it, let alone hear it performed, there’s something very sobering about the image of him sitting in the hospital, reading these particular poems, and hurriedly setting them to music. So this symphony is difficult not because it is enigmatic or obscure, but because it’s just the opposite: harrowingly straightforward, with no time to waste on digressions or niceties.
Mark Wigglesworth adds an interesting fact, germane to our current situation: Moscow was, at the time, gripped by a flu epidemic, and no visitors were allowed. Shostakovich composed this work in isolation. So this symphony is all about loss, protest, and defiance in the moment they’re happening. It’s not retrospective at all. It’s about how one confronts the biggest fear in life (notwithstanding those who say the biggest fear in life is public speaking–I’m a Toastmaster so that doesn’t even rank). There is a wide range of emotions on display–but, to my ears, few of them have anything to do with mourning. Some of them are also rather directly political. Wigglesworth states “The Fourteenth Symphony is not about death but about unnatural death; death caused by murder, oppression, and war. In fact there is not one ‘normal’ death described in the whole work and it is significant that all four of the poets whose words Shostakovich chose to set died in somewhat less than natural circumstances.”
I’m not going to quote from any of the poems. All but one of them are translated from other languages into Russian – Lorca wrote in Spanish, Apollinaire in French, and Rilke in German. I didn’t watch with a translation at hand, but only with summaries of each poem. The poems are grouped in five parts. The first, a poem, sung by the bass, called “De Profundis” by Lorca, describes the tranquil sleep of a hundred dead lovers in Spain. In the second part, the music, now sung by the soprano, turns passionate, as we move with Lorca into an evocation of a tavern where Death dances on the tables. The music is fierce, juxtaposing furious bowed strings interspersed with pizzicato, climbing up into the highest register of violins and adding the click of castanets. Then, there is the tragic story of the enchantress Lorelei, who is abandoned by a lover, tries–and fails–to get a bishop to condemn her, and finally throws herself off a cliff. This is a duet between bass and soprano, and the moment of the leap of death is marked by two cracks of the whip and the sounding of a bell, after which the celesta and vibraphone evoke the image of the drowned sorceress. The next piece, sung by the soprano (mostly in duet with three cellos), is about the three lilies (perhaps represented by the cellos) that grow wild on the grave “without a cross” of one who committed suicide.
The third part starts off with a mulitary–themed poem by Appollinaire, also sung by the soprano. about a madwoman whose brother/lover who is about to die in battle, so she must make herself beautiful to celebrate. The following poem is a dialogue between the soprano and the base where a woman has snatched back the heart she lost “in the trenches” and now laughs at the dead. Hurwitz notes that the Russian word for “guffaws”–khokhochu – is used to represent the sound of the laugh very effectively. The third section concludes with a poem, sung by the bass, about a falsely-imprisoned man, who paces back in forth in his cell to the sounds of “the strangest of all of Shostakovich’s fugues” and taps on the woodblock. Shostakovich apparently tweaked the text so that a poem about a five-day imprisonment becomes something much more terrifying.
Part 5 begins with a “wonderfully juicy, string of insults full of sarcasm and malice” as the Zaporzhye Cossacks rejoice on the grave of the Sultan who had oppressed them and as Hurwitz says, “there is little doubt as to why this song was included and just who the targets of Shostakovich’s musical payback truly were. It’s loud, brash, and dissonant. And then we swing to the other extreme, which is a haunting song to the persecuted poet, who in death achieves immortality for valiant and courageous deeds and sweet song, lyrically expressed by the bass, in the only song of the set that was originally written in Russian. The final song of the section, also about a poet, who in his moment of death, finally becomes one with the world around him, and musically recalls the beginning of the symphony, drawing the circle to a close. There is one final section – a conclusion –where the two soloists sing together. Mark Wigglesworth says “Its conclusion is that death, as an all-powerful and inescapable presence, is with us not only at the end of our life but during it too, always watching and waiting. We are never to know when it might strike. Shostakovich felt that the ending to this symphony was the only completely true conclusion he had ever written.” And then, after a frenzied climax, the music suddenly cuts out, one of the most unexpected endings (or deaths, perhaps) I’ve ever heard-
This is, by far I think, the most difficult of Shostakovich’s symphonies, but it’s also in its way one of the most successful. And, as Hurwitz mentions, Shostakovich absolutely excels in setting Russian texts to music–which is one of the reasons why, knowing the general topic of all of the poems used, I just listened to the voices and the way they interact with the orchestra. The work is probably Shostakovich’s most “modern” symphony–there are 12-tone rows and microtonalities and dissonances–but Shostakovich was never a slave to any ‘school’ but his own, and so these are just tools in his toolkit for creating various effects. If you know the work of Benjamin Britten, to whom the symphony is dedicated and whom Shostakovich counted as a friend, you can see similarities. But this isn’t a work I’d recommend all of my friends go out and listen to immediately. Late Shostakovich is definitely an acquired taste–but once you have acquired it, there is nothing quite so deeply moving.
In its final message–that death is always with us, even in life–it is brutally honest. But in each episode, we see and hear different reactions–mostly not in retrospect, but in the present–to the end of freedom, life, and happiness, and these helped me validate some of my own feelings about the current crisis.
And, as if the universe needed to put an exclamation point on the timeliness of this work for me, it should be noted that the photograph I posted yesterday of me with my grandmother was taken March 5, 1969. Shostakovich completed this symphony on March 2. Suddenly, knowing where I was in my world when he, in his, in the hospital, made it all the more real for me. I didn’t know it then, but I was in the world at the same time he was, if only for his final and my first eight years. His world was mine, though our lives were vastly different It still is.