Shostakovich

Shostakovich: his life and music

It was strange standing here in Salisbury giving a talk on Shostakovich – a man who was persecuted by the then Soviet regime – when a few hundred yards away from where the talk was given the terrible events took place allegedly perpetrated by the modern Russian state.

It is difficult to understand this man without the context of the times he lived through.  His life parallels the recent history of Russia.  He was born in 1906 a year after the failed 1905 revolution into a period of considerable unrest.  Prior to the final revolution there were several unsuccessful ones.   Much of his life was lived in constant fear.

Most people are aware of the symphony he wrote and the subtitle ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ which was actually written by a journalist and was never accepted by Shostakovich himself.  It seems also to imply that there was a single event and once he had written this subsequent symphony, everything was subsequently normal.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  He was a constant thorn in the side of the party apparatchiks.  He was too famous to liquidate as there would be an international outcry.  Nevertheless, the party could make life extremely difficult for him and made it difficult also for people to be friends with him.  Few composers have been so central to the history of his time.  He experienced war, revolution, anti-Semitism, dictatorship and terror.

His family came from Siberia and Poland.  His father worked in Weights and Measures and there is a link to Mendeleyev the discoverer of the periodic table.   He started learning the piano in 1915 and entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1919.  Teaching at the Conservatoire was unimaginative and there were no compositional classes.  Glazunov was a key supporter at this time.  Life was a constant struggle and they were frequently in debt. His father died when he was young.

He lived through the Revolution which started in St Petersburg which subsequently became Leningrad. Central to the story is the status of Leningrad which became the second city after Moscow and a window on the west.  This was both a problem and an opportunity for artists.  Leningrad was looked upon as ‘elitist’.

His First Symphony a graduate piece which showed considerable flair and promise. Strongly influenced by the work of Hindemith and was a kind of anti-symphony.  The symphony was dedicated to a friend Misha Kvardri.  Two years later, he was arrested and shot.  This is a reminder of the terrible times Shostakovich lived in: friends, acquaintances, supporters, even family members, disappear in the night and ended up in the gulag or are executed.  This got worse after the rise of Stalin in 1924 when anti-bourgeois policies, class warfare and actions against the kulaks were launched with terrible consequences for millions of Russians.

To make money he played in cinemas which he did  from 1923 until 1926.  He also composed for the cinema. Extracts from films and the following extracts were played:
• Five film extracts. – The Counterplan
o Alone
o Sofia Perofskaya
o Hamlet

Altogether wrote for 15 films.  He wrote music in the jazz idiom although the idiom was hard to see except for the use of the saxophone.
• Extract from Jazz Suite #2 composed in 1936

He started playing the piano in performance in 1923.

In 1925 the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians RAPM founded in Moscow.  The central message was that ‘music should have a social message and be accessible to the wider masses.’  They harassed intellectuals and wreaked havoc in higher institutions.  Shostakovich was sacked from a college post.  Many intellectuals and teachers were deprived of their livelihoods and denounced.

He composed the  opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (shortened in the west to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) from a libretto by Nikolai Leskov.  It was performed in January 1936 and the audience included Stalin, Molotov and Mikoyan.  They leave after 2nd act and this heralds a dramatic reversal of his fortunes. The opera is a success around the world however.   An article in the next day’s Pravda called it ‘muddle instead of music’.  His composition ‘insulted the audience with noise, cacophony, hammering, and screaming.’
Shostakovich said the article ‘changed my entire existence for ever.  It was unsigned and so represented the opinion of the party – or actually Stalin’s opinion and that was considerably more serious.’

Friends and colleagues distance themselves from him. The Leningrad Composers Union voted in favour of the Pravda article.  At the meeting where this is decided only one person spoke in favour of Shostakovich.  He was subsequently persecuted, his music was no longer performed and he was deprived of his livelihood.

In 1936 he composes his 4th Symphony which was withdrawn at the last minute.  He receives a visit from Otto Klemperer and Shostakovich plays the symphony to him on the piano and Klemperer was very impressed.  He suggests reducing the number of flutes but Shostakovich refuses. ‘What is written by the pen cannot be scratched out with an axe’ he said.  That might sound better in the original Russian.   Shostakovich almost never agrees to alter a score nor corrections nor alterations in the harmony or in the orchestration.  But his metronome markings are often completely wrong.  After one conductor said the speeds marked for a piece were impossible to play and Shostakovich agrees to change them and explains that he has an ‘old and unreliable metronome but he just did not want to throw it out.’

1936 sees the start of the great purges, millions disappear or are shot.  Shostakovich was advised by Tukhachevsky to ‘admit his errors’.  He is himself shot a year later.  Shostakovich’s position becomes very precarious and many friends, colleagues and relatives disappear.

Meeting the NKVD

On a Saturday in 1937 summoned to meet the NKVD.  After general conversation, and questions about his social life, he was asked about plot to assassinate Stalin.  Shostakovich said there were no discussions about assassinating comrade Stalin.  He was pressed on this and each time he denied that any such conversations took place.  He was asked to return on the following Monday by which time he was to have remembered discussion about the plot.  After a difficult weekend,  Shostakovich returns to the NKVD headquarters and gives his name to the guards on the door.  They refuse him entry saying they have no record of his name on their list.  After some discussion and finding out who his interrogator was, it turns out that the interrogator himself has been arrested and Shostakovich was free to go.

He composes 5th Symphony which a journalist describes as ‘a Soviet artists reply to just criticism.’  WWII and Leningrad surrounded by the Nazis.  It is the start of terrible privations.

His poor eyesight means he cannot serve in the armed forces but acts as a fire warden. Shostakovich was flown out of the city in October.

He writes Symphony #8 but this is not well received because it is not ‘optimistic’ enough. By the time it was ready for performance, the tide of war against Germany had changed and the official reception was ‘icy’.

In general, the communist party had two main problems with him.  Firstly his courage which made him difficult to control and secondly, his unpredictability. This was set against his international prestige which made him useful to the regime.  Shostakovich felt constantly under threat and always travelled with toothbrush and toothpaste in the expectation of arrest.

Post-war and the nature of the purges changed.  Intelligentsia was targeted and there were attacks on what was termed ‘formalism’.  Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev suffered during this period and he was forced to write music for propaganda films.

The Zhdanov Decree, Zhdanovschina (sometimes called ‘Zhdanov’s purge’) started in 1948-9.  Many suffered and lost their livelihoods. Public humiliations of artists was frequent.  All composers were summonsed to a conference where he encouraged mediocrities to turn against the more successful composers such as Shostakovich, Shebalin and Khachaturian. They had to sit and listen to slanders against them.  The only people who wanted to listen to his music were ‘foreign bandits and imperialists’ it was claimed.

The audience heard the famous story in Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn about clapping and no one able to stop clapping after a Stalin speech.  Also told was the phone call Shostakovich receives from Stalin as told by Julian Barnes. Composes 1st Violin Concerto possibly in 1951. Not performed until 1955. Criticised by the party for its ‘gloomy, introverted psychological outlook.’

• Extract from Violin Concerto
The evening ended with the second movement of the tenth Symphony.

Peter Curbishley

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Early stereo recordings

The last presentation was by Robin Lim on the subject of early stereo recordings.  We are so used to stereo sound now – either through loud speakers or headphones – that we forget that there was a time when sound was in mono only.  We also think that it is a fairly modern invention: modern in the sense of 60’s when stereo records appeared.  It was an example of technology being ahead of its market in that, although the recordings existed, few people could afford the means to play them.

In fact Robin revealed, stereo existed at the end of the nineteenth century in France.  This was at the Paris Electrical Exhibition in 1881.  Separate telephone lines were used to convey the two tracks and a company was set up to exploit the technology which survived until after the Great War.

Leopold Stokowski – Picture BBC

But it was in the ’30s that stereo started to make its mark and this was linked to parallel developments in being able to store sound for playing later.  An example from this era was Leopold Stokowski playing an excerpt of Die Walkerie by Wagner from 1932.  The recording was surprisingly good but with a degree of background noise.  Nevertheless, the vigour of the recording and the balance between the two speakers was excellent.

An Englishman, Anthony Blumlein, perfected the single track system and with developments in America, the modern stereo record was born.  From 1934, a recording of Sir Thomas Beecham playing part of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony and the quality of the recording was outstanding.  Some modern filtering had probably been applied by even so, it was eminently listenable to.  Sir Thomas once said ‘The English do not like music but they absolutely love the noise it makes!’

Film music on the other hand was developing rapidly and soon had 8 tracks on which to record.  We heard Stokowski again with the Russian dance from the film Fantasia which was made before the war.

During the war, the Allies listened to German radio and were surprised to hear recorded

Walter Gieseking.  Picture: Pininterest

music of high quality being transmitted.  When the war ended there was a rush to find out how the Germans had done it and they had indeed made great technical advances.  Unfortunately, a lot of the recordings were in the Russian sector and most disappeared after the war.  One at least survived and this was Gieseking playing Beethoven’s the Emperor concerto with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, and the sound and playing was simply outstanding.  Indeed, one had to remind oneself that this was a recording from the war and not a modern cd.

Robin also touched on ‘accidental stereo’.  This is where in the early days two recordings were made as a kind of insurance in case one of the machines failed.  Modern technology has enabled these two be blended together to give a stereophonic effect.  Apparently discs were sent to Elgar after the recording was done and he kept them and they have survived.  This has enabled the two recordings to be blended and as an example, we heard an extract from the ‘cello concerto.  We also heard Elgar conducting a version of ‘Oh God our help in ages past’.  This was made in February 1928.  The sound was authentic but the stereo was not so evident.  Even so, a remarkable achievement.

It was a fascinating evening, in which Robin married the development of a technology with the sound it produced.


Before the meeting we had a brief agm.  All the officers were reelected en bloc.  The Society made a small surplus in the year.  The chair thanked all those who opened up, did the refreshments, prepared the programme and also the members who continue to support us.  Over 2,000 people have visited this Web site.  New members are always welcome.  Copies of the programme are in the Oxfam music room, the Tourism Information Centre in Salt Lane and the Collector’s Room in Endless Street.

Next meeting on 17 October.

 

 

 

 

 

Nino Rota

nino rota 2
Nino Rota

The last meeting of the Society was a presentation by Robin Lim of the music of Nino Rota.  He was born in 1911 in Milan and showed early musical talent with an oratorio composed when he was 12.  He followed this up with a cello concerto aged 14 and a musical career clearly beckoned.  After early training in Italy he came to the notice of Arturo Toscanini in America who arranged for him to further his training in Philadelphia.  Whether it was the influence of his dominant mother or for other reasons, he did not finish his training there but returned instead to Milan.

Robin played examples of his compositions which included: a Clarinet Sonata; the overture; Il Cappellodi Paglia di Firenze; Concerto Soiree and excerpts from Il Gattopardo.  All the music had strong rhythm and some good melodic interest but perhaps a problem was a lack of a clear ‘voice’ of the composer.  One kept hearing echoes of other composers such as Neilsen, Dvorak and even Bruckner.  Indeed he was criticised by critics for this but of course ‘borrowing’ themes from other composers is not unknown even by the greats.

It was to film music where he found a degree of fame and success.  An early composition was the score for the Glass Mountain and we saw and heard an excerpt from the film.  Others included Juliet of the Spirits; 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita.  Altogether, he wrote some 150 film scores.  But the one which will bring him immortality and the music just about everyone can whistle or hum the main theme to, is the score to the Godfather series.  It was the highest grossing film of all time.  Amazingly, he did not get an Oscar for the score but after an outcry, he did get it for Godfather II but did not attend the ceremony to receive it.   

It was an interesting evening and showed again the difficulty of making the leap from prodigy to an established artist.  There are so many who show early precocity but developing that to become an original composer (or artist or author) can be the hardest thing.

Film music

Shostakovich
Shostakovich

After a short agm, the meeting was presented by Alan Forshaw with a programme of #filmmusic.  He discussed various film compositions of Shostakovich, Hans Zimmer and Korngold who composed primarily ‘serious’ music but who, for different reasons (political, financial, etc.) produced film scores throughout their careers.  This was the first time the society has listened to an evening devoted to this genre.

Film music is a little unregarded as a part of the music scene, indeed, a quick look in Groves for Shostakovich for example, reveals only a single passing reference to his compositions for the cinema and none in the list of works.  Yet for modern composers, writing for the cinema or composing advertising jingles provides them with valuable income before fame beckons (if it ever does).

Shostakovich wrote in the time of ‘Soviet Realism’ and falling foul of the censors could have dire consequences for any artist.  The films are long forgotten and include Alone (1930); The Great Citizen (1938); and Piragov (1947).  Alan also played extracts from wonderfully named film The Counterplan (1932) which included extracts called ‘The Workers Gather’ and ‘Song of the Counterplan’.  It would be hard to imagine queuing round the block for a film of that title today.  One could hear echoes of his later works in some of these pieces and it was interesting to hear them with the benefit of great symphonies such as the Leningrad in one’s mind.

By way of contrast, Alan played extracts from the award winning film composer Hans Zimmer.  He has written for over a 150 films including the Gladiator; The Thin Red Line; and Rain Man and has won many awards.  Extracts included The Last Samurai (2003) and The Da Vinci Code (2006).  Zimmer worked briefly with a pop group known as the Buggles, famous for their No 1 hit Video Killed the Radio Star.

Finally, Korngold who was born in Brno in 1897.  He was recognised early as a prodigy and had early successes with a ballet and two operas.  He then moved to Hollywood and composed much film music and we heard extracts from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Wolf (1941).   

It is interesting to note the difference between an opera and a film music composer.  Name an opera and most people interested in music will know the composer.  Name a film and few would know who wrote the music.  The other problem is the music may die with the film if it wasn’t a box office success.  But the music we heard tonight was worthy of a wider audience in its own right.