Saturday, December 17, 2005

Shostakovich's savage Seventh

People often say about a film that it has to be experienced in a real movie theater, with the massive screen, the pounding speakers, the gasping crowd, to be properly appreciated. I think of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony the same way - I never much liked it until I got to play it and experience the epic sweep of the thing. It can be long-winded, unwieldy, and sometimes comically banal - Bartok famously mocked its first movement march in his Concerto for Orchestra - yet it all fits together very powerfully in a concert hall, where you can't turn away from its triteness or its pathos.

Before our first performance last night, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas described meeting Shostakovich on a visit from Soviet artists to Southern California. Even in that sunny clime, MTT said, Shostakovich seemed perpetually under a cloud, a distant, haunted man whose suspicious gaze wasn't softened by American teenagers requesting autographs. I suppose it's still a miracle to me, no matter how often I see it performed, that a few pages of dots and dashes, abstract symbols, can take flight and convey something powerful and unspeakable 60 years later.

MTT described Shostakovich as a composer whose natural inclination was towards the kind of avant-grade modernism being written in Paris, spare and ironic in the manner of Satie or early Prokofiev. He was a citizen of an authoritarian regime, though, and he was compelled to write grand symphonies in the Austro-German tradition - ironically, those same nations whose army threatened Leningrad at the time Shostakovich wrote his Seventh. Shostakovich was a master of irony, and his first movement is interrupted by a long march, the passage that inspired Bartok's scorn and many others' confusion. It begins as merely an asinine, repetitive tune, accompanied by snare drum, but gradually builds to a terrifying climax, the same insidious melody now rising over shrieks and moans - like an evil psycopathic cousin to Bolero, never losing its maniacal grin.

I think for a long time I shared Bartok's derision for this march, and for the symphony as a whole. Its whole history seemed to suggest the composer selling out, quickly throwing together a patriotic anthem, intended to build up morale and excite foreign support for the Soviet cause. It seems to have done the trick: as the seige of Leningrad was halted, the symphony was an immediate popular success around the world.

With Shostakovich, though, you're never quite sure if there is another layer you're missing. Listening to it now, I hear the message that not only is war cruel and ugly, but the patriotic faces we put on in response are just as horrifying, and disfiguring. Along with the morbid, political themes, though, there is music so graceful, so innocent and nostalgic for beauty and purer pursuits - like the third movement waltz that inspired MTT to do an ice-skating demonstration on the podium during rehearsal. Maybe there's a whole other level I'm still just missing.

I wrote a little review for my Friendster profile as well:
Why did Shostakovich trivialize his 7th Symphony with one of the most idiotic themes ever written? Written during Leningrad's resistance to the Nazi invasion in 1942, the symphony contains some of Shostakovich's most rapturous, profound music - and a march so dumb that even the greatest orchestras sound silly playing it.

I think of it as the atomic bomb of thematic motives, a tune that stays in your head longer than the half-lives of most radioactive isotopes. Maybe the idea was not only to defeat Hitler's army, but send them back to Berlin humming a melody that would make their friends want to kill them as well.

Our orchestra will play two performances of the symphony this weekend, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. Take cover, this is music at its most brutal and senseless!

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