Saturday, May 20, 2006

The "Anti-Ninth"

Dmitri Shostakovich was, in WW2, the premiere musical voice of the Soviet Union. He made the cover of Time magazine and was regarded as a citizen hero, keeping Soviet Music alive even as the country was invaded. His 7th Symphony (1941) is a huge work, written in Leningrad while the city was under siege. Major orchestras all over the free world vied to premiere it. Toscanini conducted the US premiere that was broadcast live. As a VIP, Shostakovich was removed from Leningrad and went in hiding. There he produced his Symphony # 8, a bleak yet powerful work written in 1943, the darkest days of the war. One movement is a terrifying musical description of a raid with wailing sirens and falling bombs and explosions..frightening even today.

The expectation of the Soviet leaders (including Josef Stalin himself) was that his 9th Symphony was to be the final symphony in a great "War Trilogy". Since the Soviet Union had prevailed at great cost, the expectation was that the 9th was to be in the vein of the greatest of all 9ths, that of Beethoven. Thus it was even printed that Citizen-Hero Shostakovich was at work on a huge choral symphony, a hymn of peace and victory for the Motherland.

To paraphrase Monte Python, they got something completely different.

Thumbing his nose at the authorities, Shostakovich is quoted as saying "they wanted a fanfare from me, an ode, they wanted me to write a majestic Ninth Symphony. ...And they demanded that I use quadruple winds, choir and soloists to hail the leader. All the more because Stalin found the number auspicious: the Ninth Symphony. ... I announced that I was writing an apotheosis. ... When my Ninth was performed, Stalin was incensed. He was deeply offended because there was no chorus, no soloists, and no apotheosis." I can imagine Stalin saying "“WHAT IS THIS???!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?! I DEMAND ANSWERS!!"

Shostakovich had tried to write the required work but he could not be hypocritical. He knew of the horrors Stalin himself had laid to his country. He had seen his friends "disappear" in the purges of the 1930s. He knew of the anti-Semitism that led to Jews being deported and sent to concentration camps during the war. He could not bring himself to glorify Stalin, so he wrote an "“anti-Ninth". Shostakovich, it was later related by the conductor of the premiere, was constantly exhorting the orchestra to sound like a circus; perhaps with a pathetic clown or two and a big buffoon.

For this he was officially denounced and his career and very life was in danger. He refused to write any significant music until Stalin died in 1953. He then poured out masterpiece after masterpiece, including my favorite the 10th.

Most people hear a funny, short, lively symphony with dancing rhythms and folk tune-like melodies. It is often described as neo-classical or "Haydnesque" for its humorous tone. That is a surface impression. Those with a good ear hear the subversive "fuck you" that Shostakovich aimed at directly at Stalin.

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