There’s a special look that artists develop when they live under a brutal dictatorship. It’s a shiftiness in the eyes that comes from always looking behind to see who is listening and taking notes when they speak, write, paint, compose. Dmitri Shostakovich must have had that look down pat.
“He was on a list,” Victoria Bond says. “They must have watched his every move.”
Bond, herself a composer and conductor, will be giving the pre-concert talk before each of three performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 by the New York Philharmonic beginning Oct. 27. The symphony is nicknamed “Babi Yar” for the first of the five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that provide the text for each of the piece’s movements; the poem is a stark re-imagination of the brutal murder of approximately 35,000 Ukrainian Jews in the ravine that gave the poem its name.
Shostakovich’s composition, which premiered in Moscow on Dec. 18, 1962, is sharply critical of many aspects of Soviet life, none more so than the lingering whispers of anti-Semitism a full decade after Stalin’s death. Indeed, even Shostakovich’s detractors generally acknowledge that this symphony pushes harder than almost any other of the composer’s works to publicly rebuke the Kremlin.
Shostakovich had been drawn to Jewish subjects and music before. In 1943 he had orchestrated the opera “Rothschild’s Violin” by Benyamin Fleischman. Subsequently, he studied the collections of Jewish folk songs held in Vilnius and took a particular interest in the famous Moshe Beregovsky compilation.
Bond says of Shostakovich’s affinity with Jewish themes, “He understood persecution. He was certainly persecuted by Stalin. He identified with Jewish people. He was surrounded by Jews all his life. He loved the ancientness of Jewish music. When you hear his [Jewish-influenced] music, you hear the augmented seconds — that’s the cliché when we think of Jewish music — the modal quality, the open fifths. He’s clearly drawn to the stark nature of it; it’s not embellished with lush harmonies, anything but lush. The dark quality of some of the instruments — instrumentally he focuses on low instruments, contrabassoon and cello and bass section. Even the vocal writing is more in the spoken lower vocal range.”
In fact, the first performance of the piece featured the bass sections of the Republican State and Gnessin Institute Choirs.
Perhaps that is what Shostakovich had in mind when he remarked, “The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he is sad at heart.”
Undoubtedly, reading Yevtushenko’s poem, which was published during a periodic political thaw in 1961, affected Shostakovich strongly. The symphony was originally conceived as a single- movement piece setting only “Babi Yar,” but as the composer encountered more of the young poet’s texts, the more excited he became. The result is a piece that balances a wide range of moods in the highly dramatic style for which Shostakovich was well known.
“Like many other composers who are deeply involved in opera, every one of Shostakovich’s instrumental pieces has that dramatic quality, too,” Bond says. “And he brings that vividness, that theatricality to the texts of the 13th Symphony, of course.”
Although each of the five poems is pointed in its attack on elements of life in the Khrushchev era, it is the contrast – and the balance – between them that is the overarching strength of the symphony.
Bond explains, “They are the most emotionally immediate texts that could have been chosen. They were chosen musically for their stark contrast. So you move from ‘Humor’ [the second movement, allegretto] to ‘In the Store’ [adagio], following the humor, the sense of mischief, barbed mischief of course, with the image of women waiting, a sense of suspended action, a static quality. In terms of the five movements together, it’s the sense of pacing, the contrast between them that makes it work as a piece of theater, almost a cantata or mini-opera.”
Even before the symphony had its debut, Khrushchev’s apparatchiks were lowering the boom on Yevtushenko for allegedly placing the suffering of the Jews ahead of that of the Russian people. Pressure was placed on Shostakovich, the musicians and the choir.
“[The piece] was premiered at Moscow Conservatory in their large hall,” Bond says. “It received a very enthusiastic reception, which was not necessarily true of other Shostakovich works. People jumped to their feet with tears in their eyes. It obviously touched a nerve.”
It touched a nerve in the Kremlin, too. Yevtushenko rewrote “Babi Yar,” doubling its length but removing lines like “I feel myself a Jew,” and “I am every old man shot dead here./I am every child shot dead here.” In their place were anodyne examples of Socialist Realism at its most inept. And performances of the symphony were few in Russia. But when the score — with the original text — was smuggled to the West, the composition was embraced enthusiastically.
“Shostakovich was always able to thumb his nose at the authorities in his instrumental works without their realizing it,” Bond says.
With texts, it was more difficult. But musical genius usually outlasts criminal stupidity. Of Shostakovich, Bond concludes, “He definitely had the last laugh.”
Although he may have been looking over his shoulder at the time.
The New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Kurt Masur, music director emeritus, will perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” and Franz Schubert’s Symphony in B minor, “Unfinished” at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 28 and Saturday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. Victoria Bond will give a pre-concert talk one hour before each performance in the Helen Hull Room. For more information, go to www.nyphil.org or call (212) 875-5656.