What Shostakovich left out

Last week in Toronto, I was fortunate to see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in an excellent performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, entitled “The Year 1905.” (The show also took place at 10:30 PM – a daring programming move that totally paid off.) The piece was performed brilliantly under conductor and TSO musical director Peter Oundjian. Perhaps partially because the TSO recently released a recording of the piece, they knew it intimately and followed a clear, compelling, and deeply felt vision.

But in talking with my companion while walking home after the show, I tried to express a nagging feeling that I just wasn’t satisfied. Shostakovich is a composer who has been applauded so much by others around me in the past, and yet I wasn’t familiar with much of his music at all until recently. As I’ve listened in the past few months to the Symphony No. 11, Symphony No. 15 (performed by the Louisiana Philharmonic), and String Quarter No. 8 (on CD), a few impressions stood out at first. Obviously Shostakovich was a person who completely understood concepts of orchestration, and was technically a master of composing for orchestra. His originality and inventiveness was breathtaking. But with all these gifts, I’ve often thought there was something missing that kept me from really connecting with Shostakovich.

I recently read Alex Ross’ excellent book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century. It is more or less a history of the 20th century told through Western classical composers, whose attitudes and work generally reflected and/or shaped other significant historical trends and events. It’s a generally amazing book, but a lot of time was devoted to Shostakovich. It’s well known that he struggled with censorship throughout most of his career, first with Stalin and then with later Soviet leaders. Ross paints Shostakovich sympathetically as a supremely conflicted figure. On one hand, he is pursuing an artistic muse that is clearly a special and (as with any) a personal one; on the other hand, he’s trying to fulfill an official role and also stay alive, and so he sometimes makes personal and musical decisions that could be set down to spineless self-preservation if not for the fact that the alternative was so terrifying.

This division played out often in Shostakovich’s music, which frequently had to be interesting enough to win the audience’s adulation, but also conservative enough to avoid offending the wrong people. (Although Ross points out that Stalin censored artists for almost random reasons, this seems generally to be the necessary balance.) His pieces sometimes seem rather light on the surface, but are often extremely ambiguous, employing a complex array of coded musical messages of defiance, ambivalence, and individuality, sometimes even mocking his benefactors.

Symphony No. 11 is no exception. Written in 1957, it is meant to reflect on the 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre in which the tsar’s soldiers killed around 1,000 peaceful protestors, originally meant as a 50th anniversary commemoration of the event. Officially, Shostakovich would have been celebrating the fact that this led eventually to the revolutions that put the Bolsheviks in power. But there are clear indications that he was more critical, linking the brutality of the Stalinist regime to the hated Tsarist one.

This balancing act is maybe what kept me from connecting with the composer. It’s as though, as technically brilliant and inventive as Shostakovich was, he wasn’t giving his all; his heart wasn’t totally in it, and I thought this was somehow communicated through the 11th symphony. It sounded to me like he was deliberately hiding or avoiding some part of his musical self, or his actual self. And even though most artists are probably hiding from themselves in some way, I found it very sad in the case of the great Shostakovich.

But even during the conversation walking home, I wondered, especially in relation to the book, if this was just me projecting onto the music. After all, my reaction assumes that Shostakovich was just as gifted melodically as he was technically or structurally, and that in a freer life he would have written music that was even more dazzling than it often already is. There’s no guarantee of that, of course, and maybe it was just some obsession of mine with prettiness, wanting everything to sound like it came straight from Tchaikovsky. There is no other world than the one we’re in, though, and clues or not, Shostakovich only left us with the music and little else.

All the same, I know what I felt when I heard the 11th symphony. I knew that it could have been more.

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About Travis Bird

New Orleans musician and writer
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