Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, op. 46 (1937)
Orchestration for bass and chamber orchestra by the composer, undated, except “Stanzas”, orchestrated by Gerard McBurney
CD: Dimitri Kharitonov (bass), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (United 88001, reissued on Signum Classics)
Once again storm clouds have gathered quietly over me.Envious fate again threatens me with misfortune.Will I retain my contempt for destiny? Will I bring to bear against itThe resolve and endurance of my proud youth?
— Alexander Pushkin, from “Premonition” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)
I hadn’t previously listened to Shostakovich’s four Pushkin romances, and I’ve mainly seen them referenced as a sort of decoder ring for the composer’s Symphony No. 5, which he wrote a few months later, since the first song, “Rebirth”, contains thematic material that Shostakovich uses in the symphony’s finale. That particular analytic move suggests something of the absurdity of hunting for explicit, anti-Stalinist programs in Shostakovich’s instrumental works — so much thought has been spent on verifying whether the fifth symphony is a dissident statement that the tendency when presented with a work with explicit textual content (in this case, a text very much about the artist’s relationship to his critics and, given Pushkin’s conflicts with Czarist censors, the state) is to gloss over the program of the song itself in favor of an alleged hidden program in the more famous, more abstract work. I do think the content and context of the romances can inform the symphony, although the symphony stands easily on its own, but they are more contextually interesting as a germinal example of what became Shostakovich’s mature style, as he tried to remake his musical personality in a form that wouldn’t be suppressed by the USSR’s increasingly authoritarian cultural minders.
That musical style is considerably more spare and pared down than anything he’d sustained in his earlier music. The starkly orchestrated version recorded by the CBSO reinforces this with a dour, string-and-harp sound, only subtly rounded out by a clarinet, an unusual voice for Shostakovich’s chamber style. (The orchestration of the first three songs is undated; if he completed it much later in life that could tie the work’s sparsity to that of his later chamber and voice works. The fourth was orchestrated seamlessly by Gerard McBurney.) The songs’ comparatively bare texture and deliberate pace mark a concentrated shift away from Shostakovich’s kinetic early style. The vocal lines are lyrical, if not tuneful (they bear no resemblance to his abandoned operetta efforts); they most closely resemble the sound of the songs on Japanese poems, opus 21, although the soundscape of the Pushkin romances is far less cloudy.
The first song, “Rebirth”, which threatens to be consumed by its relationship to the fifth symphony, sets a poem complaining about, and hoping against, censorship. Its whisper-soft opening sets the somber tone of the whole work:
A barbarian artist uses his indolent brush
To blacken out a genius’s picture
And his own illicit drawing
He traces senselessly over it.
(Once again I’m using Laurence R. Richter’s prose translations of the poems in Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts.)
The song’s first four notes, setting most of the syllables for “a barbarian artist”, do in fact become the brash, fanfare-like motif that opens the fifth symphony’s last movement, but here it immediately bends back on itself, a meditative and worried effect. The poem goes on to predict (or hope for) vindication in the future, as the artist-barbarian’s black paint flakes away from the work beneath it, and by analogy from the author’s psyche as well:
Thus disappear the delusions
From my tormented soul,
And there arise within it visions
Of my innocent primal days.
Shostakovich’s strings and harp, in accompanying these verses rise into a tentatively peaceful, oscillating figure (the following excerpt includes the lines “Thus disappear the delusions / From my tormented soul):
This sound echoes strongly in the fifth symphony too, just before its final coda. But the repetition of a four-note, rising-and-falling fragment occurs in later songs within this work, too, and the effect — sometimes warily quiet, sometimes agitated and obsessive — becomes a frequent one throughout much of Shostakovich’s later work.
The second song, “Jealousy”, bears the strongest resemblance to the Japanese songs; it’s a musical illustration of a short romantic scenario between two unhappy lovers whose through-running anxiety, as in the earlier set of songs, feels external to the poem’s own text. In “Premonition” (see this post’s opening quotation) the composer takes Pushkin’s words about impending trouble and claims, in artfully unconvincing music, to “await the storm with indifference”; I don’t know what misfortunes Pushkin had in mind when he wrote his poem but in Shostakovich’s agitated setting the biographical connection to his turbulent political situation at the beginning of 1937 is unavoidable.
The last romance, “Stanzas”, sets the longest poem of the four and, running five minutes long, somewhat dominates the other songs as well. In it the poet describes a few episodes in which he considers his upcoming death, before finding some equanimity:
Let, then, around my tomb’s entrance
Young life play on.
And let indifferent nature
Shine on in eternal beauty.
Shostakovich’s setting, especially in a long, instrumental dying-out at the end, suggests that equanimity is something more wished for than achieved. Once again he frequently repeats a downward- and upward-stepping figure, here to a starkly churning effect that again sounds different from any music he had written to this point:
You have to look all the way back to the Krylov fables, opus 4 to find an earlier song in any way about an artist’s dealing with unjust criticism, and that work’s “The Ass and the Nightengale”, with the bright self-confidence of the precocious teenager who wrote it, contrasts strongly with the Pushkin romances. These songs instead form a prototype for many of Shostakovich’s later song cycles, with its themes of artists’ difficulties, sentimental views of young love, and inescapable death. I don’t think these songs were muched performed at the time they were written, or too frequently after, but they also demonstrate a way that Shostakovich comes to express his angst and criticism through the protective filter of a past poet’s words. The text, after all, is the poet’s, not the composer’s — and, with the centennial of Pushkin’s death in 1937 being officially celebrated by the Soviet government, the idea of setting the poet’s works could hardly draw much complaint. Too, the poet is speaking about the past, not the present, which gives the composer some leeway to illustrate universal troubles under the guise that such dark days are gone.
I believe that Shostakovich, in this work, is questioning himself in parallel to the speaker in “Premonition”: “The resolve and endurance of [his] proud youth” is in the process of being compromised, at least in terms of musical style, but Shostakovich continues to write expressive music that is personally meaningful to him, which was by no means a necessary path to take. The Pushkin romances make a fine, brooding piece of music in their own right, and in the context of his career they are worthier as a first example of his way forward — composing music of quality and meaning within the stylistic parameters forced on him by the state — than as a mere addendum to the triumphant symphony that follows it.