Excerpt from FIFTEEN INSTANCES OF SPRING
Shostakovich: The Symphonies.
The London Philarmonic Orchestra.
Conductor — Bernard Haitink
For Inna Prilezhaeva
I love Shostakovich’s symphonies: they offer an opportunity
to watch “inner movies.” This cinematographic perception of symphonic music
is not peculiar to the twentieth century. What is distinctive is the shift
in optical vision under the cinema’s influence, a shift which affects everything
possible, including the perception of music. If romanticism (Beethoven,
Tchaikovsky, etc.) helps to heighten the senses, Shostakovich hands us
a brightly colored ticket for a flight of fancy. His tempestuous montage
and relentless change of planes perfectly fit a contemporary consciousness
brewed from a concoction of musical clips.
The “Big” symphony brings to mind a full-bodied novel
suddenly shrunk to its synopsis’s skeleton. An epos. A tale about one’s
upbringing or work life, a family saga or road novel, an adventure story
or a mystery. That’s why I felt compelled to write down (to review) the
screening of these novels induced by my inner vision. Even more so because
Shostakovich himself was a connoisseur of the verbal arts: many of his
symphonies are preceded by a literary program; in many of them poetical
texts are heard. Thus, the symphonic music of Dmitri Dmitrievich emerges
at the meeting point of several art forms: cinema, literature and, of course,
music. From whence arises such a distinct genre of conveying impressions,
of describing the fundamentally indescribable: because there are as many
listeners as parallel musical pieces played at once. I decided to jot down
The First Symphony by Shostakovich (1925)
Without a doubt, Shostakovich is a winter composer: here
are violas that have caught cold; brass heating up itself; one doesn’t
even think of attempting to take a swim in the seas of his symphonies.
You can only walk pensively along the shore, admire the low and high tides.
To suddenly spot a singular object in a global movement and to stop in
one’s tracks for a moment, to marvel. You came to the sea in the wrong
season, and you still have several days — or musical measures — to spend
on thoughtful thoughts.
The comparison with the sea works best: a huge mechanism
turns and spins; every wave brings its own twist on the theme, on the anti-theme,
on the thesis and the anti-thesis. There will be no synthesis: that’s quite
another matter, quite another epoch. Each musical phrase gives birth to
its own square brackets, its own transcendental reduction and epoché.
Nothing is stated for sure; everything is washed away like traces on the
coastal sand; this is new knowledge about a human being, about his multilayered,
Spiteful intonations break through from the very first
measures; a lopsided, lipless mouth is the specter of rage. Later this
will turn into a chronic misanthropy, a trademark technique and a symbol
of resistance — resistance against what? And with whom was he fighting?
All epochs are the same, if there is no plague — then there is cholera.
A traditional music chronotope is hanging from ropes.
The nineteen-year-old wunderkind does not yet have enough strength to resist
traditional prolonged sound and the inevitability of themes (do you
hear, there is a lunar road of pianistic alluvial placers?). Here are
echoes of all music pieces at once — from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky (“The
Nutcracker” heard in a feverish or a drunkish delirium) and the Five; this
is music in general, music by definition, not a foundation but a purple
cloud; a shapeless lump of dough (exactly because formally it is the most
carefully built and realized, in comparison with others that follow). It
has roundish edges or curves curling like ringlets — there, where usually
in a “traditional” opus the melody continues lasting till its logical end,
here it is led to half-tones in order to end in the middle of a phrase,
not with an explosion but with a sob (do you hear, do you hear one more
silver placer?); a methodical elimination and emasculation of logic
and cause-and-effect ties.
And all this creates the effect of unexpected sun rays
suddenly piercing thick cotton-wool.
The Second Symphony by Shostakovich (1927)
The second is the most compact: it has only two parts,
lasting a meager twenty-one minutes. And it has words by Aleksandr Bezymianski,
whose last name, if translated into English, would be “No-name.” From a
hearty broth, from an itchy and immanent Solaris (as though the thick bouillon
of orchestral instruments were tuned with a pitchfork, and even thicker
than that), a peaceful horn emerges, then the second one, and they both
continue walking up and down the stairs, sometimes drifting apart, sometimes
concurring with each other like office workers on their lunch break. These
stairs and even the rails appear in front of my eyes in vivid details,
even though, prior to the beginning of the active music (the shaggy haze
suddenly becomes riddled with holes), the smoke of movement, the smog obscures
The manifestation of the sound’s ampleness coincides with
the création du monde enacted by cellos and strings. Bows
bravely struggle with the conquest of heroic intonations, the composer’s
trademark spitefulness (in the second symphony it’s replaced by that very
same stairs, see above), his fixation on humanity. A human being is so
miniscule, so accidental, so small, and this seems especially so against
the background of thick symphonic curtains signifying cosmic space and
eternity, twinkling behind the horizon of human perception.
The noise and the level of activity rise toward the finale
of the first part, mutating into a social and political certainty (the
affiliation with the Communist Party is cemented by the symmetrical sounds
of the instruments of the same type, united in one upsurge, as a tight
partnership of a city and a village, workers and peasants, a coalition
of party members and independents). No apotheosis but hard labor with bleeding
calluses (in which the main constituent is not blood but the lymph of the
wind instruments). A lust for hard work diminishing into a dreary whining
of French horns. Through all these laborious murals, as though through
asphalt, as though through massive snowy blobs, rare rays of individuality
start seething through. Then everything quiets down foreseeing possible
And now the singing starts. With the words by Bezymenskii,
the nameless one. The homeless one. The endless one. Salt pillars sprout
for the occasion. The male choir — what an attire: admire! In one gulp,
with the last gasp. Then the female choir is thrown into the musical trail
mix; voices separate and collide like clerks who pass by each other in
office buildings; somewhere off to the side loom loony violins, false briolines,
criolines. Then there’s an unspeakable divergence from the uncertainty
of the beginning, from the visionary notes of the first part: the vividness
of the voice, stiff and sweaty as a photograph of gymnasts at a Red Square
demonstration, suddenly floating on a platform from the black-and-white
But you swallow this in one gulp. For a long time I could
not understand why I could not listen to the vocal cycles by Mahler. But
it’s because of my different nature (and nurture); they are a reality of
another culture. But here with Shostakovich, I, who was raised on the brass
of the USSR hymn, feel very comfy as though rolling in butter. The music
turns out to be a sketch — of a hymn or heraldics, non-canonical, non-approved,
just unearthed from the state archives. It grows like wheat and forms ears;
gets swaddled while, somewhere in the middle, turning into thick hairbraids.
Still, we can’t make out words.
The Third Symphony by Shostakovich (1929)
Then we get in and end up in the multi-layered kingdom
where everything is in motion: water and light are crawling and flowing
on the slimy, mucous walls, giving us an impression that we are inside
a stomach that’s regurgitating food. Unjustified joy and aggressive enthusiasm
appear from who knows where and then turn into something else, werewolves?
But these are not explosions of flesh; these are May Day festivities seen
from the wrong angle, as though through the reflection smeared on the pot-bellied
surfaces of the winds. And yes, there is an army of winds here, an army
strengthened by kettle-drums and thorny edges of strings, fortified by
“hunter’s” horns and drum tapping.
Shostakovich’s music is active in the same way as cinematography:
the composer turns into a camera operator; the listener follows his video
camera which moves from one hall to another, from one mood to another…
Surprisingly, almost no mends are visible; rather, they are replaced by
fade-outs: these are moments of silence, the silence which will definitely
spill out before the due date.
And now, again, the obvious opposition is building up,
formed by cosmogonic motifs woven into monochromatic background masses
of grey and unclear grey color on one side. On the other side there are
people, miniscule, grotesque, made of cardboard… oh those crickets (music
cracks and dances cake-walk). These two beginnings do not compete (this
is not possible); they don’t cohabit either, but they endure parallel to
each other — like a huge backdrop with drawings on it and myriads of dwarfs
frozen in awkward poses.
And the thick symphonic traffic pressures and pushes them
down. Nikolai Roerich’s painting “Sky fight” comes to mind, where mighty
clouds, in several rows, in several blows, massively move toward each other.
They are pierced, here and there, by violins, and from afar, we hear the
quarrel of trumpets flanked by bells, kettle-drums and something else,
unexplainable, unexpressive. This composite, this rattletrap beauty is
smashing as long as it keeps together. Before Shostakovich, composers strived
to gather musical components all in one place, so that they would become
one pointed arrow — now, with Shostakovich, music lumbers like an old tram:
every side rattles on its own and attempts to draw its own autonomous graph,
A prolonged tapping of drums in the middle of the third
part proclaims the beginning of a new era or, to be more precise, the stepping
into a new space reminiscent of rows of arcades or old shaded alleys. This
step is crucial for stepping into another new space which is so spacious
that it looks empty. It is a hell and an abyss from where we can glimpse
lighted matches and muffled French horns stoked by thin-lipped trumpet
players. It’s not a swamp but this quagmire does not free you so easily.
You are held up by resounding cracks which occasionally remind one of the
emblematic march from the Seventh, the Leningrad, symphony.
And they start singing. Songs of the earth and of dead
kids in the same flask. Hairs stand on end from this unhuman music, these
unhuman efforts, these sexless unities sounding similar to funeral songs
from the black South: partially — or, as Russians say, with one leg — you
are already stepping into eternity, if not the physical then the spiritual
one. Oh yes, they indeed sing like the resurrected according to Fedorov’s
method, the dead risen from their graves. With scythes, sickles and hammers
in the hips of the anvils. Poor Mahler!
The Sixth Symphony by Shostakovich (1939)
A classical example (typical of Shostakovich) portraying
a state of mind, a feeling, an interrelationship; a fixation of intent,
a floating bridge that binds not just a person with his environment (social
setting, milieu), but the object with the subject, the path of emotion
to its logical course, its continuation; the complaints and their pressure
of global proportion about the vanity (the individual is always less than
his circumstances in such a situation). This underground ideologist of
his own selfhood sits there and swells from the power of his own conception,
completely wigged out, all puffed up. But it’s not his fault that he is
like that; he just does not have any one to support him: his pride and
gloom, born from a loneliness that could be sometimes illuminating, enlightening,
but more often leaden, empty.
This Hamlet-like confusion, the outcome of which is always
known in advance: not to be. Nevertheless, Hamlet keeps on thinking because
the ergo (sounding here like sound itself) is tantamount for him to solving
the enigma of the world. He is alive only and when he is in the process,
inside the intention — a slim ray that probes the darkness.
Everywhere around him this charmed world, which is under
a spell of death, trembles, spins and foams: Shostakovich, the atheist,
not even an agnostic — it’s just so obvious. The season when the last asters
are dying, the season of the first snow, a slight cold that turns into
full-blown anemia, a lack of energy, a facile balancing act on the brink
of non-existence. It seems Jaspers called this the borderline state.
The Sixth is about mechanisms of invoking and forming
this kind of state. It does not mean, however, that Shostakovich is describing
some grave illness — for him such existential anxiety (fading at the finale
of the first part), such depression is simply the normal body temperature
of a body that is supposed to perceive. Nothing personal: we’re all are
destined for the night.
This balance is maintained by the quantitative predominance
of the innumerable violins that fall like snow, ennobling melancholy with
white snow caps. It is not even scary to die in winter: for in doing so,
you are following the general course of events; but what is scary is to
lie in the earth, under the ground — and do nothing. The balance is strengthened
by graceful curtseys toward the classically Viennese, Mahler-like passages.
In part two we peek into a nursery where kids — who suspect
nothing — are trying to live their lives. Well, well. For Shostakovich,
the first part of any symphony is always the most important statement;
the following ones simply follow shading and supplementing the power and
cerebral abyss of the first. Only a few are able to achieve the same amplitude
and oscillation that always happens in the first part. The second and third
are more mono-logical, monochromatic, logical (that’s the right
word); as a rule, they are like a jewelry box with a secret, a thing in
itself. And only in the first part does Shostakovich allow himself to voice
direct and unaffected statements.
Aha, I am starting to understand: what is important in
Shostakovich is the drive to let oneself go, expressed through the swaying
of this emotional swing. Here is the third part of the Sixth — how could
you get more kaleidoscopic than all these waltzes and polkas swelling past
the brass; and like that — the same old thing: historicism (anthropomorphous,
really) renders innocuous their dense emptiness of the senses.
Bolsheviks must have liked it. Despite the flagrant dejection
of the final movement that brings us back to the tragic purity of the beginning.
But Rakhmaninov’s sweeping Russianness masks under the anxiety about
the fate of the Motherland a wounded existentialism suffering from heartburn.
Like: what will happen with our homeland and with us? What will happen
is that nothing will happen: we are all destined for the same night, death
is our Motherland, and Russia is inevitable.
The Ninth Symphony by Shostakovich (1945)
After the global shifts of the Seventh and cosmic eternity
of the Eighth, the Ninth is again filled with human crowds: people push,
shove and squeeze into musical cracks; they make hectic movements in the
high musical registers while the temperamental tempo speeds up and flickers.
Dancing music turns into a grimacing melody or, rather, a teasing, distorted
mirror laughing at its own reflection. Parts of the Ninth are small and
aggressive; size wise, they are all equal every which way, north, south,
east and west; it’s a ball of shadows and of shadows of these shadows,
of petite, unbalanced, unstable nervous wrecks.
The moderato of the second part resembles an anguished
and drunk lady who is loitering in deserted halls; it’s like Tolstoy’s
Natasha Rostova who went to her first ball and overindulged herself so
much in new impressions that she felt nauseous and confused. Oh my, these
interiors — high ceilings, marvelous mirrors the size of a human being;
everything jumps in front of our dazed and drowsy eyes. We had all been
waiting so long for a celebration, been trying so long to prepare for it,
counted on it, that now, when it finally arrived and then went away, when
it actually passed or, rather, passed by us, with its marching bands and
rowdy bandits, it became clear that it was only one more ghost, one more
erratic spasm of skewered joy which would never be able to save us from
our dreary routine and boredom.
It’s like in Dostoevsky’s short story “Bobok”: death is
conquered not by love but by boredom, by our ghost-like existence which
drains us day by day, which saps all our strength, armed with bilious discharges
and the dust on our night stand. It’s true that outside the window one
can watch the sunrise; it’s true that the new day opened its sleepy fresh
eyes just moments ago. But it does not hold any promise for us, nothing
besides another hangover. All the wars have been lost and won, won again
and lost as though victory has never been celebrated; all who could are
already sleeping in their coffins and beds, you can get warm only under
a cozy quilt. Get back on the street and you will again look diminished.
A two-minute presto is like a road to work (or back from work), a road
that cuts through the day as though through a cabbage pirozhki. Look, its
side is weather-beaten and stale. In the train window there are vain lights
and communication cables; you suddenly see yourself at your work table
uselessly palpating papers. Outside the window are the roofs of factory
buildings, a low sky, and factory chimneys with smoke curling out of them.
The only thing you possess is your life, the dear life that you can’t exchange
or replay, but what did you do to yourself, where did you end up after
falling out of childhood?
You were growing up as carefree and conscious-free as
grass, but only till extraneous events had stunted your growth… winds,
I hear winds, but who is calling to us, which side of the world should
we choose? Still, there is, as usual, almost no choice. Miracles don’t
happen here and never to us. The city is covered by the smoke from factory
chimneys; it’s getting dreary and dark, and we hear random steps from the
echoing corridors. This tragedy’s decorations are so banal and trivial
that nobody sees them, even you who are hurrying home in a chilly trolley
which screeches at every turn.
And at home (allegretto-allegro) there are empty
rooms which have forgotten the contours of your body while you were away;
there are neighbors behind a thin wall; there is a low ceiling which leaks
with spooky sadness. You need to rest but instead you turn on the TV and
talk on the phone for hours, relentlessly wrenching your nerves. Just when
you fall asleep, you straighten out the tired, numb limbs of your soul
— a drummer, a screeching parquet, shadows on your eyes, at the back of
your head; your clan is having a ball today but you weren’t invited, only
shadows, shadows of shadows, only the view from the window, snow, a thermometer
and mulled wine. And despite all these dead details and dead puns, you
still want to look alive, but you are “Bobok,” you are a weak, scared foreigner.
And we hear the old song: “an old drummer, an old drummer, an old drummer
is sound asleep.”
The Thirteenth Symphony by Shostakovich (1962)
A slow and sluggish gait: each step, propagating the awakening
of the earth, is accompanied by ringing bells: Gulliver, Swift’s giant,
had a hard time last summer in Marienbad. A clear reference to heroic forms
of romantic music, the all-male choir starts its part, as though flicking
on Shostakovich’s very familiar wailing and his harmonies that remind us
of prancing horses. The soloist’s voice is encircled by the confetti of
dusty colors, sapphire and onyx, the fake papier-mâché of
I’m overwhelmed by the realization that in reality Shostakovich
must not write the music he is composing but should instead transform himself,
in accordance with Stanislavsky’s famous system, into the Shostakovich
behind all this music. As though he is possessed by David Lynch’s Bob,
who directs his sounds to the wrong place. It’s not about attempts to become
one with your own “century,” but about the abundance and deliberateness
of all these ships being destroyed and drowned inside the music.
The poem by Yevtushenko about the Babi Yar is schematic:
every quatrain is yet one more spin-off on the theme, one more illustration,
one more log on the log pile. The fact that Shostakovich took, as the foundation
of his 13th symphony, the poem of this awkward, tasteless, and soft boiled
poet who smells of his peasant high boots smeared with cow dung, says something
about Shostakovich himself, about his indifference to all life events and
processes taking place outside of his inner world. It says nothing about
the music, which exists separately. Despite the deliberate attempt to illustrate
and underscore the words, this is not a dramatic ballet, not a staged song
(remember how in school, when we were young pioneers, we had to stage songs?);
this is cascading waterfalls of strength and emaciation; this is boiled
over emotions which cover ear lobes with dandruff and grey hairs.
The orchestra starts going full force only after the
soloist falls silent. What is most important takes place in the twists
and shadowy semi-tones, in the lightly sketched, almost untraceable movements
and scarcely drawn melodic shadows; the voice (especially when it’s all
alone, since the male choir forms a thick, almost material musical cloud)
performs the function of bringing the content to the surface and hardening
it; the voice here petrifies the intention; it is a plaster cast of a thought
slipping, like an eel, between your fingers — and then it again goes underwater
only to resurface when a stranger falls silent. This is what happens in
the finale of the first part — where a powerful circulation, like the Gulf
Stream, carries the sound on its shoulders and elevates it to unreachable
heights, only to hurtle it down violently moments later.
The second part — Humor — turns out to be illustrative
because Shostakovich steps down from his unearthly cosmogonic, elevated
plateau to the thick borscht of funny folksiness. Here we hear the typical
misanthropic swindling and smiling peppered with irony so familiar to us
from the first symphonies; however, this swindling and smiling, unlike
the previous ones, has already been straightened out by the straightforward
sounds of strings which, somewhere closer to the middle of this episode,
finally catch up with the screeching, nagging, licentious, inhumanly obstinate
The literary constituent in the 13th again serves as a
disclosure of the method — in reality, it does not matter to Shostakovich
what to write the music about: Babi Yar, Humor or the Fate of a Woman in
a Bread Line; what is important is the process, not as a result, but as
a movement itself, a stream, exactly as prescribed by classical modernism.
We hear the difference between the declaration of intentions and the intentions
themselves (the intentions in this case are music). The clarinet whistles
out an ironic trill which is immediately carried on by harmonious male
voices, around which jingles, drums, rattles and other swarms of midges
The third part (Women Waiting in Line) starts as a piling
up of the very same low rumbling fjords which we already heard in the symphonies
as though talking about the fates of the Motherland and the world. The
dual voices of stern strings reveal openings in the earth from which an
austere and pagan steam of hushed choral repetition arises. Castanets are
like ghosts from another, unseen, world, and violins straighten themselves
up in terse solos, flanked on both sides by chilly cellos and violas —
as though women are walking through the icy chill of approaching dawn,
bringing their fathers and children not to the village store, but to an
execution. As a harp is added, the tutti of the violins becomes more irrational,
more otherworldly, lying against the background of the half-asleep, half-awake
basses, long eyelashes and pupils covered with a musical veil that suddenly
gives birth to a mighty crescendo — Gogol’s Vii opens his bleary eyes,
making us at peace through tragic bubbles from the bowels of the earth
that redeem the tasteless text.
And again there are shadowy glimpses of the fading musical
measures which prevailed over the human voice. From this human voice the
fourth part starts sprouting (Fears) — we hear the hollow, crawling movement
of basses which, in its turn, gives birth to the smooth, spinning cone
of a funnel — the tip of this Tower of Babel is melting somewhere in faceless
skies transforming into a quiet male choir reminiscent of a catholic recitative:
the Inquisition, Jesuits in their burlesque, bulky clothes.
Constant fluctuations in the strings make the sound wavering,
unstable — a draw bridge opening right under our feet. Another abyss opens
wide and atonality breaks through like lava covering the earth with its
hot innards. But in this part the human voice is on an equal footing
with the instruments, as though it itself is an instrument, but it lasts
only till pine trees of strings whirl up and then are devoured by the increasing
mightiness of basses. And again the Titanic is drowning: the male choir
signifies the waterway of the sea, the level below which you can’t sink.
But look, water is tightening its cold grip on my soul, covering the top
of my head.
In the fifth part (Career) we enter an underwater kingdom:
everything is fluid and slow; nothing is moving besides unseen tectonic
streams bleeding internally. Modulations and tints allow you to see into
the furthest corners of the world, and skeletons of fearful thoughts are
swimming by. The most important thing here, the flashes of beauty and of
harmonious sound, again appear amid a dialog between a soloist and the
approving choir. And here is the strongest impression we get from Shostakovich’s
music, the impression we are looking for with impatience — those speckles,
those tiny spots of beauty, which can’t last long. Suddenly there is a
chord of unmatched beauty or an unexpected bunch of sounds as though of
flowers, or a couple of strong string passages, sticking out of the crowd
of stupid masses who immediately smash it. No symmetry, just a continuous
movement to somewhere. Who knows where to.
I’m reading a biography of Shostakovich, a musician
who is overly meticulous, socially maladapted, mentally mauled, unmended.
Socially perverse. The pressure was so crushing, the desire to be born
again, to stand on an equal footing with his age, was so strong that even
music didn’t get broken, didn’t betray its creator — no matter what happens,
a heart can’t be ruled, love can’t be thrown into the dirty snow of April,
talent obliges. And genius, how are matters with him?
Shostakovich himself complained that there were too
many symphonies crafted by him; wouldn't it be nice to eliminate half?
Or everything after the 9th? In the sense that a normal (genius) composer
should not write more than nine.
[In the past I wrote some text in memory of Schnittke,
the text is called “A Purely Musical Murder,” which told how Gennady Rozhdestvensky
forced Schnittke to write the 9th Symphony after two strokes, and that
this (after Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner etc. etc.) indeed is like a death
sentence. And Shnitke tried to finish, did not finish — and died. It was
good text. In the newspaper “The Chelyabinsk Worker.”]
What Shostakovich had in mind was that he was writing
a lot just to serve the governing power, to illustrate The Short Course
of the History of the Communist Party. But still, the music he wrote is
great. It’s music that overcame the creator’s intentions. Therefore, we
can twirl it anyway we please (and this is one of the facets of greatness).
And it would be a shame not to jump at such an opportunity.
And I’m jumping.