Listening to Russian Music in Putin’s Shadow


On the morning of August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Wenceslas Sq., in Prague, finishing an overnight Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubček, the liberal-minded leader of the Czech governing administration, was detained and flown to Moscow. That evening, in London, the U.S.S.R. State Symphony, underneath the course of Yevgeny Svetlanov, gave a live performance at Royal Albert Hall, as section of the BBC Proms. Shouts of protest ended up listened to at the outset of each perform on the system. Mstislav Rostropovich, who was to depart the Soviet Union six many years later on, broke into tears as he played Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, a landmark of Czech music. The next 50 % of the live performance was supplied about to Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, a monumental oration by the dwelling titan of Soviet composers. Sound from the viewers carried above into the initially bars of the get the job done then silence fell. Fifty minutes later on, a roar of applause followed the frenzied final bars of the symphony.

These scenes were quite schedule in classical tunes through most of the twentieth century, as a single country or another took its turn in the function of arch-villain on the intercontinental stage. These days, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has produced a cultural worry of a variety that has not been seen in generations. Numerous performers with potent ties to Vladimir Putin—Valery Gergiev, Anna Netrebko, Denis Matsuev—have found their careers in Europe and The usa evaporate. In a several isolated situations, common Russian functions have been pulled from applications. At the commencing of March, the Polish Countrywide Opera named off a staging of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” that had been scheduled for the spring. A several days afterwards, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and his 2nd Symphony were dropped from a concert by the Cardiff Philharmonic—a decision that elicited all over the world mockery on social media.

No protests materialized the other evening when the Los Angeles Philharmonic, underneath the route of Ludovic Morlot, presented a primarily Russian software at Disney Hall: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Metacosmos,” Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, and the Shostakovich Tenth. Nor did the orchestra acquire the move of introducing the live performance with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, as a lot of other ensembles have recently carried out. Issuing no apologies or explanations, the orchestra dependable its viewers to grapple with two composers whose lives in Stalinist Russia were being immensely fraught and whose connection with regardless of what is intended by Russianness was advanced. This appeared the right approach.

A couple commentators have tried using to forged the boycotting of Russian composers and musicians as so-named cancel society operate amok. The argument demonstrates farcical ignorance of more than a century of cultural background. In the course of the Very first Globe War, when anti-German paranoia swept throughout The usa, the Met stopped presenting not only the obvious Wagner but also Mozart, who experienced been a topic of the Holy Roman Empire. When the next war came, organizations took a distinctive tack, appropriating German repertory for the war exertion: Beethoven’s Fifth turned a V-for-victory symbol “The Ride of the Valkyries” was joined to Allied bombing raids. Neither strategy did the songs justice, but the next is the a person worthy of emulating: by reversing the jargon of Nazi propaganda, it restored the maddening ambiguity that is music’s natural habitat.

Cosmopolitan in his outlook, Prokofiev put in time in The united states and France just after the Bolshevik Revolution. His conclusion to settle in Stalinist Russia was based mostly on a miscalculation that his fame would secure him from ideological pressures. Photograph from Pictorial Push / Alamy 

“How Russian is it?” is a query that cou
ld be requested of each main is effective on the L.A. Phil’s current method. Prokofiev was, in truth, Ukrainian, nevertheless in an anachronistic sense. He was born in 1891, in the village of Sontsovka, presently known as Sontsivka, in japanese Ukraine. 30 miles to the east is Donetsk, which has become the money of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, a Russian-backed separatist entity. The neighborhood airport bears the name Donetsk Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in 2014, it turned a battlefield among Ukrainian and separatist forces, and was wrecked in the procedure. Though Ukrainian soldiers had been finally compelled to withdraw, their furious resistance obtained legendary status, and was commemorated in the 2017 film “Cyborgs: Heroes Never ever Die.” Inspite of Russian innovations in the past month, Sontsivka seems to stay in Ukrainian fingers.

Nonetheless Prokofiev lacked area roots: his father, an estate supervisor, came from Moscow. Cosmopolitan in his outlook, the composer put in time in America and France immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution. His determination to settle in Stalinist Russia, in the thirties, was based mostly on a miscalculation that his fame would protect him from ideological pressures. Alternatively, he satisfied with recurring humiliations. A situation in position is the bad reception accorded to his 1940 opera, “Semyon Kotko,” which was set in Ukraine throughout the chaotic civil war that adopted the revolutions of 1917. The ostensible agenda was to embrace Ukrainian heritage when buttressing the higher Bolshevik trigger. The villains of the piece are German occupiers and their Ukrainian nationalist collaborators. But, as the musicologist Nathan Seinen observes, Prokofiev failed to provide a ringing endorsement of that socialist-realist software his setting of Taras Shevchenko’s 1845 poem “Zapovit” (“Testament”), a traditional of Ukrainian literature, carried a whiff of nationalist sensation. Seinen writes, “There was a risk for a subtext to be examine in this article of the oppression of Ukraine by a up to date Russia somewhat than by a Western enemy.”

These days, I have absent again to the recording of “Semyon Kotko” that Gergiev designed with the Mariinsky Theatre ensemble in 1999—part of an a must have collection of Russian-opera recordings that appeared on the now defunct Philips label. In individual, I have been listening to the finale of Act III, which depicts the burning of a Ukrainian village. More than a relentless ostinato, a women’s chorus sings, “They plunder and burn up us, / they plunder and melt away. / Our Ukraine is shed, / all is missing! Oh, make a stand! Make a stand!” Useless to say, these strains assume a distinct forged in light-weight of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Gergiev would definitely be consternated by that interpretation. Probably Prokofiev would have been, too. But there is no controlling the resonances that performs acquire as they go ahead in time.

No political queries attend the Initially Piano Concerto—the insolently brilliant function of a twenty-a single-12 months-outdated composer who was defining himself within and from Russian traditions. Impressed in portion by Richard Strauss’s youthful anti-concerto “Burleske,” Prokofiev has fun at the cost of the grand Intimate manner, even as he deploys its products to empower the soloist (himself, at the première, in 1912). At the finish, the pianist flings down D-flat-important chords in all registers, in blatant reference to Tchaikovsky’s Initial Piano Concerto. A critic of the period accused Prokofiev of embodying the “modern ‘football’ era . . . silly, inane, and blockheaded.” Sergio Tiempo, the soloist at the L.A. Phil, showed sufficient flattening power to justify the athletic metaphors, though his intelligently playful model was just about anything but inane. What the piece eventually has to do with Russia—Tsarist, Stalinist, Putinist—is anyone’s guess.

Prokofiev’s performs usually dance a tiny outdoors of time. With Shostakovich’s, we can seldom forget the situation underneath which they gestated. The Tenth Symphony was completed in the fall of 1953, seven months following Stalin’s loss of life. (In the most heavy-handed irony in musical historical past, Prokofiev died on the very same day as the guy who tormented him.) Shostakovich experienced been residing less than a pall of panic considering the fact that 1936, when Pravda published a denunciation of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” In the symphony, he can make obsessive use of a notational cipher primarily based on his very own name—D, E-flat, C, B-normal, or D, S, C, H, in German notation—almost forcing the listener to imagine about his destiny. Nonetheless, as with just about almost everything Shostakovich wrote, the score defeats a univocal interpretation, its classical four-motion structure interlaced with political, own, and purely musical messages.

The tone of the Tenth Symphony is established in a large, meandering opening movement, which acquires at periods a hurtling headlong electrical power. Shostakovich was adept at this form of mutating construction, which experienced been pioneered by his gifted, erratic colleague Gavriil Popov. There follows a curt, violent Scherzo—an apotheosis of unthinking drive. The orchestration mimics the movement of a mob: woodwinds racing as a result of their upper registers in tight-ranked cadres, brass crunching forward in steel columns. I the moment listened to this motion even though going for walks by a hurry-hour group in Moments Square, and felt an uncanny likeness involving the sensation of the audio and the sensation of the crowd—the animal electricity that arrives from riding with the stream, the animal fear that will come from resisting it. Fittingly, while surreally, an arrangement of the Scherzo has develop into a showpiece for Amer
ican substantial-school and higher education marching bands.

In a common symphonic narrative, a Scherzo would be paired with a soulful or tragic gradual motion, these kinds of as Shostakovich supplied with his enormously common Fifth Symphony. The third motion of the Tenth, marked Allegretto, wanders in a distinct route. About a minute in, over a lurching a few-quarter dance rhythm, piccolos and oboe pipe out the D-S-C-H motto. This is sooner or later joined by a solitary horn contact: E-A-E-D-A. The musicologist Nelly Kravetz identified that this second musical cipher alludes to the pianist Elmira Nazirova, with whom Shostakovich was besotted at the time. The motif also resembles the opening horn topic of “Das Lied von der Erde,” as Shostakovich pointed out in a letter to Nazirova. Just immediately after, the brooding songs of the very first motion returns. Later on, equally motifs seem in opposition to a pileup of dissonant chords, which is like a wall by way of which neither can move. The enigmatic ambiance of this motion, with its gestures toward Austro-German custom, undermines any endeavor to frame the work as a heroic Soviet narrative.

Soviet symphonists had been expected to conclude their works in daily life-affirming trend. From his Fifth Symphony onward, Shostakovich practiced an art of equivocal triumph, and the finale of the Tenth may be his deftest feat in this line. The operate seems to be scampering towards a cartoonishly festive end when D-S-C-H is blasted out triple forte by the total orchestra, at which issue every thing crashes to a halt. Before long sufficient, the carnival temper resumes, with D-S-C-H woven into the material. By the closing internet pages, the repetition of the motif has all the subtlety of a blinking neon sign. Swirling up-and-down thrives in the winds and strings echo the march movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”—itself a model of unstable exultation. For both equally Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky turns into an aspect in an intricate musical collage.

The Soviet-era musicologist Marina Sabinina after related the coda of the Tenth to 1 of the darkest moments of Shostakovich’s job: his speech at a 1948 Soviet composers’ convention, at which he was obliged to confess that he experienced “deviated in the course of formalism” and experienced begun to “speak a language incomprehensible to the men and women.” In accordance to Sabinina, Shostakovich privately in contrast himself to a “cut-out paper doll on a string.” She relates that graphic to a grotesque anecdote about Gogol staring at himself in the mirror: “Completely self-absorbed, he would repeatedly simply call out his personal name with a sense of alienation and revulsion.” Unlike a lot of tales instructed about Shostakovich, this a single has an genuine ring. At the identical time, it doesn’t do justice to the manic exuberance of the music. At the Proms in 1968, the audience responded with visceral glee. So as well did the just one at Disney Corridor, in the wake of a overall performance that, despite becoming a bit much too straitlaced in tempo, had an obliterating affect. This is true joy, nonetheless traumatized: the joy of survival.

We can rarely fail to remember the conditions underneath which Shostakovich’s is effective gestated.Photograph from Library of Congress / Getty

Dividing the repertory into countrywide teams is easy for musicians, students, and the common community alike. This frame of mind yields systems with titles like “From the Russian Steppes” and “French Impressions.” Nevertheless the perpetuation of hoary countrywide clichés obscures the complexity of just about every composer’s relations with domestic and overseas influences. Shostakovich had a lot more in common with his English counterpart Benjamin Britten than with any of his Russian contemporaries. Prokofiev was closer to Ravel or Poulenc than to Shostakovich. The
émigré Stravinsky grew to become, in the finish, a country unto himself. Reliance on national categories is all the much more questionable at a time when Putin, Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump, and Éric Zemmour—to identify a number of working towards and would-be autocrats—are reviving exceptionalist rhetoric.

Acknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in simple fact, serve as a look at on the oppressive attract of nationalist mythologies. The late Benedict Anderson, in his amazing guide “Imagined Communities,” showed how this sort of narratives depend on the creation of ancient origins that feed the political demands of the current. Evicting Russian composers from the repertory would perversely close up reinforcing Putin’s exploitation of an more mature Russian tradition in the title of chauvinistic conceptions of a Russky Mir (a “Russian World”). The ban on Wagner performances in Israel is similarly counterproductive: it upholds Hitler’s declare on a composer whose ideological convictions were much way too baffled to match any recognized political reality.

Proust wrote, “Every artist seems to be the citizen of an unfamiliar homeland, 1 that he himself has forgotten.” Shostakovich carries that feeling of a missing homeland via his operate, its contours starting to be visible in just a couple of bars of new music. It may perhaps overlap with the Russia of his beginning, but it also borders on the audio of other lands and on the inner landscape of his creativity. As time passes, the artist’s personal entire world merges with the worlds of its listeners. It no longer belongs to 1 land or 1 time. Which is why films of high-college bands participating in the Tenth at halftime give a giddy variety of delight: they indicate that Shostakovich has escaped the nightmare of record.


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