Siege Diaries 1/27/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt:  What am I studying, practicing, and training?

For me, it is the constant search for deeper knowledge, for context, for analysis, for understanding–both of myself–who I am, what I aspire to be, and how to make that happen–and of the world.  On a day where so many say “Never Again!” without being willing to do the work to make that more than an empty platitude, I am called to question how I can best have the courage to espouse justice. Words are easy. Actions, not so much.

Today, some anniversaries. Six years ago, we took possession of our current home (moving the next day). Two years ago, I traveled to Detroit to tour the Fisher Building and to hear the Detroit Symphony play Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony (what I’m listening to right now, in fact.)

It’s also Holocaust Remembrance Day, so I took the opportunity to listen again to Michael Sanderling and the Dresdener Philharmoniker’s spectacular recording of the Shostakovich 13th, “Babi Yar,” which managed to leave my jaw hanging yet again.  The first movement (from which the symphony takes its name) is perfect.  I know no other performance that brings out both the brutality and the deep, abiding sense of mourning like this recording.  And then there’s that fourth movement, “Fear.”  Any decent recording of it will sound creepy.  This one transcends creepy into deeply, utterly disturbing.  Anyone remotely good at visualizing will come away with conscious nightmares.

And then, I followed a thread down the rabbit hole.  I had briefly contemplated following up the Shostakovich with Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Symphony no. 20, but then I remembered The Passenger. This 1968 opera by Weinberg sat unperformed until 2006; like Weinberg’s friend Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, rehearsals began the year it was written, only to be abandoned and the work consigned to the archives.  It’s based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz, based on her own experience in Auschwitz.  It concerns a German woman and her husband on a ship to South America, where he is to take up a diplomatic posting. She sees a mysterious passenger who reminds her of a woman from her past–as it turns out, she was an SS overseer at Auschwitz where a woman named Marta was a prisoner, a fact she has concealed.  The filmed performance, with the Vienna Symphony and Prague Chamber Choir, with stage direction by David Pountney, pulls no punches–all of those on board the ship wear white, while descending into the bowels of the ship one encounters a death camp, with shaved-head inmates and bunks stacked several high.  These flashback scenes show that the woman, Liese, was a cruel and manipulative woman who sought to break the defiant Marta through the power of discovering her relationship with Tadeusz, another prisoner;  but, as it is revealed in the climactic scene of the opera, Tadeusz, knowing his life is doomed for refusing to play Liese’s game, chooses to play Bach instead of the SS commandant’s favourite waltz, and is dragged away, his violin smashed.  Liese assumes that Marta, too, is dead–but seeing the mysterious passenger brings it all into question (especially when the passenger requests the band play the very same waltz that the commandant wanted to hear.  The opera ends with Liese unable to talk to the woman, and so unable to assuage her guilty conscience.  

Weinberg’s music is powerfully intense, perhaps taking a few cues from his friend Shostakovich (I kept hearing the same bells as in the 13th symphony, and some of the same musical colours), although that influence very definitely went both ways.  Shostakovich encouraged Weinberg to write the opera, and I kept hearing little tiny reminders here and there of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, among other things.  But it’s more than that, and its intensity is in no way derivative or imitative.  The work has gotten some criticism for being rather devoid of obvious Jewish characters (there’s only one), but it has to be remembered that it was written in the USSR in the 1960s by a man who barely escaped the fate of his family in being sent to the camps by making it to the Soviet Union, only to have imprisoned (after his father-in-law was executed) in the height of Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges in the late 40s and early 50s–only escaping because Stalin died and Shostakovich managed to get Beria to release Weinberg.  At the beginning of the decade, Yevgeny Yevtushenko was forced to rewrite his poem “Babi Yar” after the first performances of  Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony to talk about how the Russians suffered as much as the Jews.  So the work’s lack of obvious Jewishness shouldn’t be that surprising–although it was probably enough to get the work shelved until 2006.

For my money, this is the most important opera of the second half of the 20th century.  It’s absolutely unrelenting, and even with only a high-level outline of the plot, the music makes the brutality of the camp scenes, in contrast with the banality of the shipboard scenes, absolutely manifest.  I’ll be seeking out the DVD or a recording so I can understand the libretto (which is in German, Polish, Russian, French, Yiddish, Czech, and even a few spoken bits of English–although the original was apparently only in Russian). 

Give it 2 hours and 40 minutes of your life.  You won’t regret it.  There are two parts.  Both are linked below.