On the eve of Jan. 26, 1936 Joseph Stalin and his entourage attended a performance of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District but they left the theater before the last act. The opera had been playing to acclaim for two years in Moscow and its 29-year-old composer was hailed a Russian musical genius, beloved by his fellow countrymen.
A few days after Stalin's ominous attendance, a vociferous and damning editorial called "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared anonymously in Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper. The editorial denounced Shostakovich as a "formalist" and petty bourgeois composer whose "intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds" was a danger to the Soviet people. Everyone was convinced Stalin himself penned the artistic death warrant.
Two weeks later a second unsigned editorial appeared in Pravda (an unprecedented sequence of attacks) denouncing Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream in Moscow. Shostakovich was betrayed by nearly all of his colleagues in the Composers Union who supported Pravda's attacks. Stripped of professional support and friends, and anticipating the worst, Shostakovich allegedly kept a packed suitcase under his writing desk as he attempted to create new music in an atmosphere of isolation and fear.
Further catastrophic events unfolded: the arrest, imprisonment, exile and death of powerful patrons and family members. Shostakovich was forced to withdraw the Leningrad Philharmonic's premiere of his Symphony No. 4, fearing for his life and the musicians who dared play his music. Still, he continued to compose. Meanwhile, Stalin and his officials awaited the debut of his Fifth Symphony to see if a chastened Shostakovich had "reformed" and written music according to their dictates.
Against this backdrop of pervasive political terror and personal attack, Shostakovich had to find a way to write his Symphony No. 5, scheduled to premiere Nov. 21, 1937. Fearing arrest, torture and even death, the composer, with sly brilliance and a remarkable spirit, found a way to compose music which appeared to adhere to Stalin's directives while subtly weaving a deeper and sardonic musical truth, bearing testimony to the despair and terror that reigned over the nation.
THE 14th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, played at the 92d Street Y Sunday afternoon by the New York Chamber Symphony under the composer's son, Maxim, is a cycle of 11 songs on the subject of death. The texts are by Lorca, Apollinaire, Kuchelbecher and Rilke, set for soprano and bass soloists. It is an important, difficult work, and any performance of it is a significant event.
Mussorgsky's ''Songs and Dances of Death'' lies behind the symphony, not so much an influence as a prompt: Shostakovich conceived his cycle after orchestrating the Mussorgsky work, to say things the earlier composer hadn't. The musical style owes most to Britten, whose way of writing for the voice and creating musical structures for verse are felt throughout. The orchestra is paired to strings and percussion only, and in disposition the work is often a rhythmic duet for voice and percussion with string accompaniment.
Shostakovich's images of death are neither terrifying nor consoling, but biting, angry, depressed, drab, sardonic; above all, unsentimentally open-eyed.
The program notes at the Y included an interesting dialogue between Maxim Shostakovich and the Soviet emigre musicologist Solomon Volkov, in which the conductor insistently presses his interlocutor away from the nihilistic interpretation of the symphony set out in the composer's as-told-to-Volkov memoirs. In the book, Dmitri Shostakovich criticizes Tchaikovsky and Verdi for ''cowardly'' capitulation to ''the seduction of solace'' in their depictions of death. Some of his friends, he said, ''wanted the finale to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning. But it's not a beginning, it's the real end, there will be nothing afterward, nothing.'' But his son insists that in the symphony ''you also feel the soul rising up to God.''
It is hard to find that in the piece itself, and the performance at the Y did not especially carry forward the conductor's argument. It was a disappointing interpretation in some ways, though the power of the work came through. Other orchestras and conductors have given the score more bite and precision, more security of execution. And the strings, with no break for retuning, were having severe intonation problems by the ninth song.
The soloists were Carol Webber and John Cheek. Both sang with energy, but pushed their voices in the strenuous passages. Both, their attention fixed on a pair of music stands, sang the poems in Russian - but without the Russian flavor that might have justified retaining the sounds the composer heard. A metrical English version by Phyllis Curtin, fine for singing but completely inappropriate as a reading translation, was printed in the program, with no spacing to help readers keep their place.Continue reading the main story