In which I ignore the current political climate and argue how great Russians are
Today marks the 92nd anniversary of Symphony No. 2, a.k.a. “To October,” by Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. If that name alone isn’t sufficient to convince you of the inherent nobility of the Russian people, I don’t know what I can do for you. (At least, they haven’t always tried to hack us…)
Shostakovich composed “classical” music (part of the school of modernism, if you want to get technical) under the long arm of Soviet law. Occasionally his work conflicted with Stalin’s own opinions, so it’s a wonder he didn’t wind up “disappeared” like many of his contemporaries and friends. His memoir, Testimony, an extended interview with a young journalist in the ‘70s, is widely regarded as unreliable because he knew he was still being watched. The post-Stalin government had even coerced him into joining the Socialist Party. And the book was only published because the journalist smuggled it into the United States. So that paints a picture for you.
My first exposure to Shostakovich came in the form of Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Whenever I hear the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 2, I see a little tin soldier, his ballerina partner, and an evil jack-in-the-box. (I’ve never trusted those things.) My formal education happened in college, starting in sophomore year on a ride home for vacation. A junior friend, one hand on the wheel and one year of music history under her belt, described his subversive efforts to rebel against the regime by filling his orchestration with coded themes. I didn’t consciously store this information for future use, but it came back two years later as I read about him in a twentieth-century-music history course.
I won’t mince words: music is a highly emotional experience for me, and the more I learned about his valiant creative struggle, the more attracted I was to him. Also, the glasses. I love a man with a sharp pair of specs. We visually impaired folks need to stick together, you know?
In any event, I signed out every biographical and historical source in the library and set to work on a master paper shedding light on said valiant creative struggle. I couldn’t believe I’d gone so long without stumbling upon his story: the way he fell into and out of favor with power, his seemingly endless spring of inspiration, his tumultuous relationships with an array of colorful characters. I was really and wholly taken.
A few of my favorite popular artists have mentioned him among their influences, and he seems to get the recognition and the performance time he deserves. As I unearthed more and more of his compositions, I discovered the Second Piano Concerto—my oldest association with him—to be rather out of character. A majority of his catalogue is not cheerful or even pleasant, but dissonant, menacing, sometimes downright frightening. (Other pieces compensate; the waltz from his Second Suite for Variety Orchestra never fails to make me swoon.) Which only goes to show how accurately it reflects its time. And how you need not like an artist’s entire canon, or agree with his politics, to appreciate and respect him.
Shostakovich died in 1975 at age sixty-eight. He is buried in Moscow, but my first ambition is to get to St. Petersburg, his hometown and the dedicatee of at least one of his symphonies and probably plenty more works. Every culture has got ugliness in its past, and I think representatives like Shostakovich remind us how much beauty there is also.
That said, maybe I’ll hold my visit until 2021, or until things quiet down.
Here’s to a fellow September baby! (We do get all the good ones, don’t we?)
Image: Sovfoto/UIG, via Getty Images