Shostakovich Fans Look for Music's Political Meaning

The 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Dmitri Shostakovich has been celebrated all year with concerts and recordings of his music. There has also been more discussion about whether his music was written in support of Russia's communist government, or in protest against it.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Books have been written and movies have been made about the man, but his music and what he meant by it remains clouded in controversy.

NPR's Tom Huizenga reports:

TOM HUIZENGA: Much of the debate about Shostakovich centers on whether the mild-mannered composer was speaking a secret language of dissent through his music, or whether he was little more than a court composer to a brutal communist regime.

As a young man, Dmitri Shostakovich was touched with brilliance. His first symphony heralded him as a whip-smart composer, who, at age 19, obviously knew what to do with an orchestra.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

HUIZENGA: Before long, Soviet papers covered Shostakovich like a Hollywood celebrity. In 1934, he unleashed a sexy thriller of an opera called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

(Soundbite of opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk")

Unidentified Female (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: In January 1936, Shostakovich was riding high. In Moscow, three different theaters were hosting separate productions of Lady Macbeth. And what happened next, says Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay, changed the composer's life and the history of Russian music.

Ms. LAUREL FAY (Author of Shostakovich: A Life): Stalin happened to go to see one of these and was not pleased. And he caused to be written an unsigned editorial which severely condemned the opera and its pretensions to art. This was no mere review; this was a denunciation and of course it had a chilling effect not just on Shostakovich but on the whole arts world.

HUIZENGA: In one stroke Stalin redefined Russian art, which began a seesaw battle between Shostakovich and the government that would last for decades. One moment, he was an ally writing propaganda pieces. The next, he was an adversary whose complex art-for-art's-sake style of music was labeled formalist.

Shostakovich's son, Maxim, is now 68 and he says he remembers living in fear as a child.

Mr. MAXIM SHOSTAKOVICH (Son of Dmitri Shostakovich): People walked around our house and they scream (foreign language spoken) Shostakovich formalist, you know. It was so many articles in newspaper about my father, how bad he is. He's enemy of the people, his music is ugly, formalistic, et cetera.

HUIZENGA: The year after Stalin's crushing editorial, Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony. It has a heart breaking slow movement and an enigmatic finale that conductors like Valery Gergiev still puzzle over today.

Mr. VALERY GERGIEV (Conductor): The finale is the only big question and big mystery. What exactly he wanted from this finale? Is it too fast when you play it fast or is it too slow when you play it slow?

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 5 in D Minor")

HUIZENGA: And here's where the Shostakovich code-breakers come in. For years, some thought that a finale played too fast missed the point. The sensation of rejoicing, they believed, must be slowed down to a point where it feels forced, as if by Stalin's regime.

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 5 in D Minor")

HUIZENGA: Fast or slow, the Fifth Symphony won praise from audiences and the Soviet state. Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony built up his reputation even further. He composed most of it in his hometown of Leningrad in late summer 1941, while the city was being shelled by Nazis.

The completed score was flown out of the country on microfilm and the great anticipation of hearing the symphony in the U.S. landed Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine.

Six short years later in 1948, Shostakovich was again officially denounced. He lost his professorship and no Soviet musicians dared play his music. After Stalin died in 1953, Shostakovich breathed a little easier but his nerves were still on edge. And for some inexplicable reason he joined the Communist Party. Biographer Laurel Fay says it was a mistake he regretted.

Ms. FAY: By 1960 there was no reason to join the party and I think he was basically sort of at a weak moment. He agreed and then they wouldn't let him back out.

(Soundbite of orchestra "String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor")

HUIZENGA: Shostakovich poured his anguish into his Eighth String Quartet. David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, says the Eighth is filled with stunning music and a cache of coded messages.

Mr. DAVID FINCKEL (Cellist, Emerson String Quartet): The famous three-note knocks...

(Soundbite of orchestra "String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor")

Mr. FINCKEL: ...which some people have described as sounding like gunshots. Other people say that they are the famous knock on the door in the middle of the night from the KGB coming to get you. It's a dissident cluster of chords that's hammered out three times.

(Soundbite of orchestra "String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor")

HUIZENGA: Two years after the Eighth Quartet in 1962, Shostakovich was in trouble yet again. This time it was his 13th Symphony which contained poetry hinting at government-sanctioned anti-Semitism.

In his final years, Shostakovich's music retreated to dark and inward spaces. His last symphony, No. 15, is an enigma. He stitched in a four-note theme containing his own initials; he riffed on Rossini and Wagner and dusted it with tinkling shards of light.

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 15 in A Major")

HUIZENGA: A century after his birth, there's more interest in Shostakovich than ever with books, a movie, new recordings and concerts. And people continue to look for clues as to what it all means. Was he a closet dissident or a faithful party servant?

Conductor and scholar Leon Botstein says it's not that simple.

Mr. LEON BOTSTEIN (Music Director, American Symphony Orchestra): People are more complicated than we give them credit for. You can't reduce them. He was a patriotic composer and understood very well the cruelty and suffering under which he lived. He was at one hand a careerist and the other hand painfully guilty about his accommodation with the regime.

HUIZENGA: The debates over Shostakovich, the man, may one day lose steam, but his music at this point seems unstoppable.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 15 in A Major")

MONTAGNE: Dmitri Shostakovich wrote one of his greatest works at the height of the Stalinist purges of 1937, when millions of Soviet citizens were forcibly relocated, exiled or killed. At npr.org there's an essay about that work, Symphony No. 5, and a list of three must-have Shostakovich CDs.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Hearing History in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich i i

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich poses during a recording session for the French record label Pathe Marconi in Paris, May 23, 1958. hide caption

itoggle caption
Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich poses during a recording session for the French record label Pathe Marconi in Paris, May 23, 1958.

Scroll down for a list of three must-have Shostakovich recordings.

Symphony No. 5

Hear samples of the music:

— New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Aside from the obvious marketing hooks, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich this week gives us an opportunity to delve more deeply into the less-explored music and dimensions of the man.

In a world where soundbites dominate and categorization abounds, Shostakovich presents a challenge to define. It was his fate to be a monumental creative talent living in the Soviet Union — one of history's most restrictive, whimsical, and repressive regimes. Not surprisingly, then, his life and work are marked by paradox and ambiguity.

For me, nothing expresses that duality and struggle as much as his Symphony No. 5, written at the height of the Stalinist purges of 1937, when millions of Soviet citizens were forcibly relocated, exiled and/or killed outright. Shostakovich was emerging from a period of total musical banishment with his fifth symphony, calling it "a response to my critics."

Against that backdrop, how can we not listen to the work without reading between the notes? Is the blatant patriotic fervor emblematic of Shostakovich's desire to please his comrades, or a genuine outburst of love for his homeland? Or is it an extreme form of irony, ingeniously straddling both sides of a dangerous abyss?

From the opening battle between upper and lower strings to the complete desolation and apathy of the violin melody a few bars later, imagining Shostakovich's personal viewpoint can't help but have an impact on how to interpret his music in a heightened way.

For example, how fast should it be played? At the very end of the symphony, Shostakovich's original tempo marking is quite slow. But Leonard Bernstein doubled the tempo in his recording with the New York Philharmonic, and Shostakovich thought it worked very well.

For me, this is a defining moment in the symphony, determined by the entirety of the last movement, and even the journey of the entire piece. I hear the last movement as a gradual acceleration of forces, an increasing sense of hysteria and loss of control until things break down and the fanfare (like the theme) becomes almost nightmarish in sound.

For me, this is an important trasformation. It signals a moment of weakness and affects how I approach the coda — the sort of "summary statement." Shostakovich ends by offering an opening for hopefulness, for a certain nobility in survival. Therefore, I take a tempo that is not too fast nor too slow, neither giddy nor funereal.

I think it's only natural that Shostakovich has become a receptacle for people's polarized political viewpoints. Revisionist, anti-revisionist, comrade, revolutionary? Perhaps this anniversary year will afford us a chance to look at Shostakovich not only as the complex, conflicted being he must have been in that environment, but also purely as a human being who possessed a wonderful sense of humor and a lightness of being.

Just listen to his arrangement of "Tea for Two" or his jazz suites. These are not often celebrated aspects of Dimitri Shostakovich, but perhaps we will have time this year to avoid the predictable in exploring this profound artist.

Three Must-Have Shostakovich Recordings

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, 6 concertos and hours of film scores during his career. Erich Auerbach/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Erich Auerbach/Corbis

Immersing yourself in Dmitri Shostakovich's complete works would take days, but familiarizing yourself with his music should take no more than an afternoon. And it will not be painful.

Simon Morrison, a Russian music scholar at Princeton University, says Shostakovich "was a composer interested in social discourse. He sought to engage, rather than alienate, his audiences."

Morrison picks three of the most engaging Shostakovich pieces, noting that "these three works, clustered relatively close together in Shostakovich's career, represent the different facets of his general style."

The Style: Subversive Neoclassicism

The Composition: Third String Quartet in F Major, 1946 — "A typical early piece," says Morrison, noting that there's "almost an element of ugliness built into the texture" of the music.

Must-Have CD: Shostakovich: The String Quartets by the Emerson String Quartet, which won 2 Grammys for a 5-disc box set featuring all of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets.

The Style: Bombastic (and Marvelously Noisy) Heroism

The Composition: Fifth Symphony, 1937 — A "landmark heroic period piece" that was Shostakovich's attempt to "conform to Soviet-era symphonies," says Morrision. The traditional structure and instrumentation evoke a "narrative representation of a hero's life and death."

Must-Have CD: Shostakovich: Symphonie, No. 5, Op. 47 by Yevgeny Mravinsky

The Style: Brooding Introspection

The Composition: Piano Trio in E Minor, 1944 — A "masterpiece of compelling dark somber melodic lines" that suggests a "tragic, internal depression," says Morrison. He notes that the melody is beautiful and the texture beguiling.

Must-Have CD: Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Trios by Argerich, Kremer and Maisky

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