Sunday, March 27, 2016

Music (Over)Analysis - Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich, the condemnation of Stalin regime and vindication of Stalin's anti-formalism

While Shostakovich is nowhere near my favourite artist, he's by far has the most interesting story. Shostakovich Great Masters Lecture series by Robert Greenberg should be recommended to even people who have no interest in music in general and would be interesting for anyone just interested in history. I'm going to comment on Shostakovich assuming that the "Testimony" biography is 100% accurate (this is disputed). Robert Greenberg believes it was accurate and the Great Masters series is reliant on it's accuracy and apparently the book Shostakovich Reconsidered defended the attacks on it's credibility.Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 is probably the most interesting background story behind a composition in the history of western music.

The background was that Shostakovich who had the reputation as the leading and most talented Russian-based composer in music at that current time. However this all changed when Shostakovich written the opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District". Although that opera was a massive hit in Russia and internationally. One day Josef Stalin personally attended the opera and everything changed that day. Josef Stalin was offended by the sexual explicitness of the opera as well as the modernist dissonance characteristic of the opera that was considered pandering to the bourgeois. The term that was used in denouncing modernist music that doesn't glorify the state was called "formalist" music. Josef Stalin and his officials left the theatre after the first act and was quoted as calling the opera "that degenerate music!" 

Two days later on January 28, 1936, apparently Josef Stalin himself wrote an editorial called "Muddle instead of Music" denouncing the opera and giving an undisguised threat to Shostakovich himself. This is a key quote from the editorial

"From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this "music" is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.

Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos - in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera - the same basis on which "Leftist" Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word - which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of "Meyerholdism" infinitely multiplied. Here we have "leftist" confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

After that article was published, Shostakovich became an "enemy of the people" and the public stopped playing his work. the performance of Symphony No. 4 was cancelled due to it's "formalist' nature. Shostakovich fully believed that he would be purged, however that purged never happen. The Russian state believed that Shostakovich could be an asset if he was rehabilitated from his "formalist mistakes". 

So Shostakovich went on composing fifth symphony that would either rehabilitate him or led him being purged. His life was actually in stake with this composition. He was instructed that the composition of music should be accessible to the masses and in the future, the submission of any proposed project was screened by the committee. Immediately before the premier, Shostakovich 5th symphony was performed to party select who would screen it for ideological suitability. Publicly Shostakovich stated that the composition was "a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism." and that the work was about "A lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory". 

However no matter how much Shostakovich said publicly that this was about his personal rehabilitation from the formalist composer to the person who is aligned with the doctrine of the state, the audience understood what the piece was about which was about the horror of the "great purges" by Stalin and for the audience who experienced friends and family being purged, emotionally relate to this work and afterwards gave him a standing ovation for hours. Shostakovich seemingly did the impossible, he rehabilitated himself to the state while at the same time tapping into the grief and anger of the public condemning the regime. This is essentially the subversive, underdog version of George Orwell "doublespeak". Instead of doublespeak as a way to subjugate the population, it's doublespeak to rebel against authority.

In fact I have to say it's a miracle that Shostakovich got away with the Symphony No. 5. If I was a party hack scrutinising his work for ideology suitability, I would have easily recognised that this was an attack on Stalin regime and had him executed. The first time I listened to this symphony with absolutely zero background reading, at no point did I felt this was celebratory glorification music but instead it struck me as essentially as an incredibly disturbing dark music.. Shostakovich must have been a brilliant bullshit artist for him to convinced the party hacks this was his rehabilitation.

The first movement is essentially disturbing horror music of people hiding from a terrifying danger and in the development section it morphed into a violent terrifying marched that seems like a violent caricature of the soviet military music and the music ended in a sombre note. The second movement is like a scherzo (a joke) of a scherzo (which is essentially a joke of the minuet and trio). I mean technically it's a waltz but this time Shostakovich tendency to subvert expectation comes to a fore. Where this seemingly accessible dancing melody becomes off-balanced and gets twisted that feels dissonant. It's a grotesque parody of a dance. The third movement reduced the audience members who were suffering under Stalin rule to tears. When I first read that description, you would think this was some melodramatic "sad" music like "Adagio for Strings" by Barber that tugs on your heart string but instead of this tragic depressing sad music, unexpectedly what we get instead was this horrified shock. The music is quite brilliantly subdued that suits the message of the music. The imagery I get is an aftermath of a massacre seeing dead bodies and be in complete shock and numb unable to process what they saw rather than something really depressing. It's a far more interesting and unexpected slow movement that took me by surprised. 

The 4th movement is one the greatest concert closer I have ever heard. As a first time audience was quoted, it was the sound of "The iron tread of a monstrous power trampling man" and the music depicts a military march but portrayed it with extreme brutality. The military march then fades into quiet despair as people react to the consequences of the violence from organised state violence. The highlight of the last movement was the tense and final build up from the preceding despair via a repetitive ascending stabbing strings that initially sounds violent but resolves in a seemingly celebratory major key. It was perhaps the only thing that could have been perceived to be "optimistic" in the entire symphony and perhaps the reason why Shostakovich was able to lie to the Communist party members that this was a victorious conclusion to a lengthy spiritual battle but considering the incredibly violent and brutal build up to that ending and how the repetitive stabbing like string sounds incredibly brutal still remained when the major transition occurs and how the major key ending seems almost abrupt, I can easily dismissed this happy ending as a red-herring and quite frankly it made a hell of a lot more sense to view the rejoicing to be '"forced" as the major key ending was a result of atrocity and violence as depicted in the previous tension. As stated in Testimony by Shostakovich "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing," and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing."

Symphony No, 5 is a great subversive "doublespeak" composition that makes a mockery of Stalin request to write optimistic music glorifying the state. However as you may notice by the heading, It's my view that despite it's subversive nature, it's as much of a vindication of Stalin's anti-formalism as it is a criticism of Stalin enforcing it.

The fact of the manner is that Symphony No. 5 is one of the most accessible works in Shostakovich career. Shostakovich was forced to tone down his modernistic tendency and create work that is emotionally direct that captures the spirit of the population instead of the bourgeois intellectuals. It's what happen when you meet the audience half-way, tempering your self-expressive values and balancing it with accessibility and the desire for the audience to listened to music that is somewhat pleasurable to listen to. The funny thing is that Shostakovich learned his lesson and exactly addressed what Stalin asked "The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning." Shostakovich wrote music with this symphony that was designed to infect the masses and none of the modernist elements of the composition felt like gratuitous and is completely integrated with the emotions of the music. If Shostakovich didn't have the restriction imposed on him, I wonder whether he could have ever created a work that became a cultural milestone even if the piece had the same message as it could have never touched the hearts of the listeners, it would have never reduced the audience to tears and it would have never brought a standing ovation that last an hour. Sure it was music condemning the Stalin regime but it was music that perversely Stalin right on the fallacy of modernist attitude. Stalin may have been extremely unethical for threatening to purge Shostakovich for writing modernist work but without that restriction his work could have never flourished.

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