December 7, 2016 4 Comments
Yesterday, I learned some devastating news. A friend who encouraged me to write an earlier incarnation of “The Musical Almanac” starting in the late 1990s died the day after Thanksgiving. His name was John Kim. He was a colleague with a mind as big as anyone I’ve ever known matched in size only by the vastness of his heart. He had so much integrity, a profound sense of duty to his family, he was an excellent pianist, a gourmand, a gourmet chef, an illustrator, bon vivant, a friend to all, a devoted son, and a loving big brother to his three younger siblings for whom he put his own dreams of greatness aside to ensure they got the best educations possible after his father disappeared from his life. On his birthday (February 12) in 1998, I wrote the following blog post about him and a piece of music he introduced me to. Requiescat in pacem, dear John.
February 12: Dimitri Shostakovich: Symphony Number 5
Today I jump out of chronological order to write about Shostakovich’s Symphony Number 5. After all, I only heard it for the first time last week, so by all rights I should write about it after completing all the other pieces I intend to cover this year. However, I’m jumping the gun to honor my friend, John Kim, whose birthday falls today. Last week, he insisted I come to his house so he could play it for me. It is one of his favorite pieces, and he saw it conducted in Washington, DC, by Mstislav Rostropovich. John studied piano in his youth, majored in history at the University of Chicago, and is a gifted illustrator. What he’s doing working in computers, I’ll never know, but because he’s so gosh-darned cultured, he makes work much more fun.
It is hard to listen to this work and not think of Shostakovich’s tragic life. During the first 20 years after the Soviet revolution, Russia was at the forefront of the European art. In film, there was Eisenstein; in painting, the Avant Garde and Kandinsky, and nowhere was the flow of ideas more pronounced than in music, where even Stravinsky was allowed to be played with the other innovators like Bartok and Prokofiev. Things changed drastically, when Stalin came to power.
In 1936, Shostakovich wrote the opera Lady McBeth of Mtsenk, which Stalin condemned “as being against the people” and even pornographic. This carried considerably more weight than, say Jerry Falwell calling the Tellytubby Tinky Winky a homosexual. Stalin, for example, killed millions of people he considered enemies of the revolution.
To prove he had been “rehabilitated,” Shostakovitch wrote Symphony Number 5. Rostropovich, his pupil and friend, described the composer’s music as a “double-bottomed” boat. On the one hand, it sounded traditional and accessible enough for it to please Stalin’s minister of propaganda, while at the same time it was full of the anguish and struggle the composer felt being forced to comply with Socialist Realism.
When John first played me this piece, that message came through loud and clear. Each section has incredibly beautiful melodies, which eventually get run over by some lumbering, tank-like, oppressive tune that represents the thug-like mentality of the Soviet regime. Next come chilling passages with screeching strings that seem to represent the soul being flayed to bits. In other passages, you would swear you hear a body being hacked to death-or the soul of an artist.
This piece reminds me of a book by Nabokov called Bend Sinister. The opening chapter portrays an encounter between a professor crossing from one part of a city (maybe postwar Berlin) after curfew. He’d stayed to late at the hospital comforting his dying wife. At the bridge that leads back to his part of the city, he is confronted by an illiterate border guard of a totalitarian regime. He mistrusts the professor, whom he instantly recognizes as an “intellectual” by his glasses, and threatens to arrest the professor and throw him into the river. In more recent times, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia rounded up and systematically killed all “intellectuals” with glasses.
John describes this piece as “music as code.” He says that it represents Shostakovich throwing his hand up and saying to the Soviet authorities, “O.K., you win. I’ll write what you want.” After being rehabilitated he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, along with Prokofiev. Unfortunately, in 1948, the propaganda chief, Zhdanov, branded Shostakovich’s work again, this time for being “bourgeois,” “formalistic” and “anti-popular.” What insanity.
When hearing about such state-sanctioned madness, it sometimes makes me feel humble as just how cushy a life we lead here in the U.S. Living through a year of the Monica Lewinsky debacle in congress seems like a walk down a country road. And though, Shostakovich’s Symphony Number 5 is full of such gut-wrenching passion and sadness, it serves as a kind of tocsin as well. As John Curran said in 1790, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” So thank you John Kim, for introducing me to this piece, and happy birthday, indeed.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 / Bernstein · New York Philharmonic Orchestra