Christmastime is here, just about. Shostakovich, however, didn’t write much seasonally appropriate music, being an atheist in an atheist state. Yet connections between his work and the holiday can be found! For one — a very tenuous one — the opening lick of the D-flat major prelude from his Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 bears an abstract sort of resemblance to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”:
That excerpt comes from an album of sharp opus-87 wind arrangements played by the Calefax Reed Quintet.
Closer still to a carol is a piece in Act I of The Limpid Stream, which, as noted previously, starts out sounding quite a bit like “O Come All Ye Faithful”. As a sort of Christmas bonus the quasi-hymn is followed immediately by a few repetitions of the short-short-long “Jingle Bells” pattern, although it reads less as “cheerful holiday tidings” than as “lazy attempt at rhythmic propulsion”:
“Jingle Bells” brings us to the most direct instance of Christmas music that I’m aware of in Shostakovich’s output, possibly the only deliberate one and probably the weirdest: In his music for Grigori Kozintsev’s 1941 production of King Lear, he sets some of the Fool’s songs to variations on “Jingle Bells”:
This recording is by David Wilson-Johnson and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mark Elder. Gerard McBurney back-translates Samuil Marshak’s translation of Shakespeare:
He who decides to give away his country in pieces,
let him consort with fools –
he’ll replace me.
He and I will stand arm in arm, two fat fools,
one in a fool’s cap, the other without a cap.
A warning worth heeding, no doubt, during the holidays as in any other season.
This is going to conclude my Shostakovich blogging for the year, as I push to wrap up some work tasks and prepare to fly back East for the holidays. In the first week of 2011 I’ll hit the ground running with Shostakovich’s towering, decidedly un-Christmassy fourth symphony.
[Shostakovich] began to speak with sadness about his “lost health”, but did not linger long on this subject and quickly turned to reminiscences of the composer Gavriil Popov. “Now there was a talent. His First Symphony, which had a lot of magnificent stuff in it, was banned at the time by the Fighters against Formalism. I have been appointed chairman of the Popov Memorial Committee; it is essential that his works are played.”
The Russian composer Gavriil Popov was born in 1904 and died in 1972, by which time early, suppressed Soviet musical works, at least by Shostakovich, had been reappearing in the USSR over the past decade. I don’t know if Popov’s first symphony saw the light of day then, but it was swallowed by the same political sinkhole as Shostakovich’s major works of the 1920s and early 1930s (chiefly The Nose, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and the fourth symphony) and was equally deserving of restoration. After his first symphony was banned after its single public performance in 1935, Popov’s career, from what little I know of it, followed a similar track to Shostakovich’s: A bend into a more conservative style, a good deal of compositions for film and for thoroughly acceptible official occasions. He never developed Shostakovich’s international reputation — whether he could have is one of the many might-have-beens that come up when you learn about this or that Soviet artist who was squelched by the state — and his first symphony remains obscure, although it now has Leon Botstein’s excellent 2004 recording with the London Symphony to advocate for it. I’m including the work in my listen-through of Shostakovich’s works because Shostakovich’s fourth symphony obviously imitates much of its “magnificent stuff” in style and structure (I think it’s Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise who most aggressively makes that point of the authors I’ve read on the subject, although I don’t have the book at hand) and, more generally, because I want to cover a few works by other Soviet composers to see how Shostakovich fits in among his peers. It’s also a great work to go through; I’ve been listening to it quite a bit over the past couple of years, especially in the past few months when I’ve wanted a Soviet-orchestral fix during my self-imposed Shostakovich rationing, and listening through it closely last night was just a lot of fun.
Popov built his symphony on a grandiose scale, in three movements totaling fifty minutes; the style channels Prokofiev’s 1915Scythian Suite but with more mass and sharper edges. The first movement, lasting for nearly half of the work’s total runtime itself, kicks off with an orchestral outburst and immediately falls off into a skittering introduction:
The first movement is rhapsodic and hard to track, as it kneads its musical material over and over until it’s barely recognizable. Its initial impression is all surface effects: Wind-heavy timbres, dramatic pauses, high dynamic contrasts. After getting more familiar with it I notice the movement’s structure more, how it rises and falls. The opening leads into an almost Romantic upswelling about three and a half minutes in, which builds into a sunburst of grinding orchestral sound; this darkens and settles down, only to lurch back into motion and peak in a glorious, twisting, noisy episode at the movement’s midpoint. This finally narrows down for good in the movement’s last five minutes, as the opening figure sprouts back up but settles into murky quietude, disturbed a little by repetitive, worrying figures in the low strings. The music’s greatest fault is its tendency to get loud and stay there for long, seemingly arbitrary stretches of time, but its sheer excess is also its greatest charm.
The slow second movement opens with a gentle, slightly exotic melody that unspools in the woodwinds, owing much to the high-bassoon beginning of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The musical energy ebbs and flows as in the first movement but at a lower level, percolating for a bit before lowering again into romantic-modern softness, and finally dwindling to a minor-key close.
The ten-minute third movement is the easiest to take in at once and the most outwardly charming. It jumps into motion from the start and, within a minute, whips up into a kaleidoscopic frenzy. Around the 1:30 mark the trombone introduces a clownish, heavy-footed dance figure and passes it on through the orchestra. I think of such episodes as “bear polkas”, borrowing a phrase from a Paul Celan poem, for their ungainliness and sense of subdued menace; Popov here lacks Prokofiev’s gift for melody or Shostakovich’s facility for carnivalesque mugging, but I like this one a lot.
The dance material gets worked over for a bit and then, about six minutes in, the movement is sucked into the whirlpool-like beginning of the symphony’s coda, which rapidly builds to a gleaming, brushed-steel climax:
The work’s final minutes move like a massive clockwork that nearly shakes itself apart, all chiming percussion and titanic brass tones that heat up into a last, incandescent chord. It’s become one of my favorite symphonic finales out there — it’s not a delicately nuanced one, obviously, but I like the earnestness of this type of unselfconscious orchestral gigantism, and there is a subtlety in how Popov’s music sounds both ecstatic and ragged around the edges. It’s a fantastic example of monumental, industrial-grade Soviet musical modernism; it’s a shame that Popov wasn’t allowed to continue working in this vein.
Five Fragments, op. 42 (1935)
CD: Shostakovich: The Execution of Stepan Razin, etc., Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (Naxos 8.557812)
For the past few years I’ve been a little bit familiar with the Five Fragments from this album, not that the work demands much familiarity. But it works well as a companion to the bigger stuff on this album by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (a band I still haven’t heard in concert, despite being only one major city away from me), the classical-ouevre equivalent of a B-side, and the musicians give a good account of it.
The five short pieces, sketches for Shostakovich’s upcoming fourth symphony, make a ten-minute exercise in the general style of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, though in their stylistic details they differ somewhat — I imagine Shostakovich was working out a couple of different angles. The first two fragments point most clearly back at the sound worlds of Lady Macbeth and The Nose, particularly the ominous tension of the former’s first act. The central Largo, though, achieves something else than the earlier style: With slow traces of melodic lines and chords hanging in the air as though vaporized, it creates an static, pensive atmosphere that, running for a comparatively long four minutes, anchors the entire set. The piece that follows it continues in something like the same mood, but with less aim and interest.
Some hard-edged solo fiddling in the final Allegretto shows off a jumpy figure that makes its way in some form into the last movement of the fourth symphony — the only material in the fragments so used, I think — as well as an attitude that comes back in biting folk-dance episodes in several of Shostakovich’s string quartets:
Fun enough stuff; my reaction to it is mainly the same joy of recognition I feel towards anything unmistakably in the composer’s style.
Girlfriends, op. 41a (1935)
CD: Various soloists, Camerata Silesia, The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)
Lev Arnshtam’s Girlfriends is another of Shostakovich’s early film collaborations available in its un-subtitled entirety on the Internet but I opted instead for the music without images, because I want to get to know Mark Fitz-Gerald’s disc and, with Love and Hatred and Maxim’s Youth in recent memory and still more films (the rest of the Maxim Trilogy!) looming ahead, I want to pace myself on the intriguing but also sort of tiresome act of watching a propagandistic, somewhat dated, frequently incomprehensible movie in discrete and sometimes slow-to-download chunks. Actually, between Maxim’s Youth and Girlfriends I may have picked the wrong one to watch in full, as this score — largely reconstructed from the original film soundtrack by Fitz-Gerald — is the richer and more varied one, a mix of chamber music, large orchestra work, novel solo instruments, and revolutionary song. As in The Golden Mountains, Shostakovich deploys a pipe organ, in a voluntary accompanied by brass instruments that heralds the 1919 civil war; as in Alone, Shostakovich makes a rare use of the theremin, in an unstable rendition of the Internationale, then the Soviet national anthem, that plays as the titular girlfriends (serving as nurses) and some wounded soldiers flee from the enemy by train. Whether the effect is more comical or unsettling in the film I don’t yet know, but in its pure audio form the electronic solo wavers neatly between the two:
I’ll eventually need to watch the film, too, to take in the contrast between the vintage recording of the score and Fitz-Gerald’s thoroughly contemporary, clean-lined account. Based on the past films I’ve watched there’s a lot of charm in that older, warblier sound, but my tastes in vocal music are very much a product of my times, I think, and I appreciate the lucid, filigree-free (and, certainly, well engineered) solo and ensemble singing on the Naxos album:
Our enemy did not mock you,
At your death you were surrounded
By your own people, and we,
Your friends, closed your eagle eyes.
That excerpt (text translated by Anastasia Belina) comes from the revolutionary song “Tormented by a Lack of Freedom”, one of a couple such numbers that Shostakovich incorporated into the Girlfriends score and, notably for Shostakovich theme-spotters, one he much later worked into the emotionally searing medley of his eighth quartet. The film score actually has a more direct relationship to his string quartet writing: Music from the 1938 first quartet serves as the movie’s introduction, which seems uncanny until you read in the booklet essay (by John Riley, he of the ever-helpful film handbook) that the usage dates from a 1960s restoration. There is original quartet music in the film, though, sometimes augmented by other instruments, and it presents a view of the composer’s emerging chamber music sound, as well as the expressiveness of his general middle-period style:
All in all it’s a fine forty-five minutes of music. I expect its joys would be diminished outside the context of Shostakovich’s career and the music, designed to coexist with moving images without overwhelming them, suffers on its own as most film scores do (I learned this phenomenon well enough from playing John Williams’ official Jurassic Park soundtrack CD over and over at a tender age), but it very much supports Riley’s thesis that Shostakovich’s cinematic work deserves more credit and attention than it usually gets. If nothing else, the ties between it and his string quartets — that most respected, intimate, consistently high-quality body of Shostakovich’s work — puts the lie to the idea that his film music can all be dismissed as perfunctory, politically expedient stuff. It’s a neat facet of his compositional personality to get to know, all these years after becoming so deeply attached to his music.
As an end-of-year deadline looms at the office, my work life turns out to be more or less consuming this entire week, so, despite great interest in Shostakovich’s film score for Girlfriends and a desire to make it through to the fifth symphony before my Christmas break begins in mid-December, I’m going to put my listening on ice for the week and dig back in with opus 41a on the 6th or 7th.
Another not-hearing-Shostakovich note: Yo-Yo Ma plays one concert this weekend with the Oregon Symphony, performing Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, but I will not be attending since the show was sold out more or less from the moment it was announced and Ma’s rock-star popularity puts scalped tickets, if any there be at this point, beyond my budget. So an umimpressive critical-listening effort on my part, all in all.