April 13, 2012

How history becomes "music history" ...

First, a bit of history in pictures:

A typical workday in a Soviet concentration camp ca. 1932

A typical workday in a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz) ca. 1942

Officers of Hitler's Wermacht and Stalin's Red Army enjoying a friendly smoke
in celebration of their joint invasion of Poland (1939)

Soviet Composer Dmitri Shostakovich 
9 years before the Pravda editorial attack:
Symphony No.2 "October" (1927)
(celebrating 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution)

6 years before the Pravda editorial attack: 
Symphony No.3 "First of May" (1930)
(glorifying the "proletarian holiday"
 and, again, the Bolshevik revolution)

7 years after Stalin's death:
joins the Communist Party (1960)

8 years after Stalin's death:
Symphony No.12 "The Year 1917" (1961)
(glorifying  the first Bolshevik mass-murderer Lenin 
and, once again, the Bolshevik revolution)

And now lets take a brief look at how history is transformed into "music history":

... in the end [Shostakovich's] art, as it now becomes increasingly clear, remained for many years the only artistic phenomenon ... which actively resisted the totalitarian regime.  We can say without exaggeration that dissent was an integral part of this great composer's creative output.
Mark Aranovsky, Muzikalnaya Akademiya 4, 1997, p.3  (translation and italics mine) 

At a deeper level,  Shostakovich's works had spoken the truth about the tragedy of his times and the evils of the system of which he was himself a victim.
Alexandra George, Escape from "Ward Six", University Press of America, 1998, p.388 (italics mine). 
*     *     *
With eloquent cocksuckers like these two never in short supply,  soon we will be told that atheism was an integral part of Bach's creative output (with his Passions vividly condemning the mixture of lunacy and cruelty in religion); that Wagner fought antisemitism by exposing its irrationality in his deliberately outlandish antisemitic pamphlets; and that Stalin's  vicious 1948 attack on "formalism" in Soviet music was secretly engineered by the CIA...


laybl said...

Did it occur to you that "eloquent cocksuckers" was an oxymoron, except for ventriloquists?

Having been raised as a "red-diaper baby" by bolshevik, Jewish emigres from the Ukraine, I have long recognized the ability of true believers to accept or rationalize any outrageous act by those they sympathize with--see your above list--Paul Robeson, for example, testified that he could not support any black man sacrificing his life in a fight against Hitler, a statement reflecting the "non-aggression pact" between Germany and the Soviet Union. The subsequent invasion by the nazis quickly changed Robeson's mind.

Similar truckling can be seen re Chavez, Castro,et al.

Rostropovich has long claimed that Shostakovitch had hidden ironies in his music, and now Gunter Grass has reawakened anti-semitism in Germany...who'da thunk it?

Baal said...

With the New York Philharmonic and two Shostakovich scores in front of him on Wednesday night, Mstislav Rostropovich could have just stood there, a living, breathing piece of music history, and made the desired impression. Once a powerful cellist, a conductor of orchestras, a colleague to great men and in his time a brave voice against Soviet cultural policy, Mr. Rostropovich — nearing 80 and as energetic a patriot as ever — was at Avery Fisher Hall for the first of four subscription concerts in as many days.

(21April 2006)

Blow Job!

Peter said...

Following laybl's point, cocksuckers are not generally so successful if the cock in question is 20 years dead.

Or do you mean some immense collective post-Soviet Russian Musical Academia's bear's cock?

In any case, I must hear more dissonance and incongruity in Shozzer's work than you, because it seems a long way from the ways of the Horst Wessel Song. Have you been listening to Khrenikov or Blanter and thinking it was Shostakovich?

In any case, there are more differentiated perspectives on Shostakovich and his "positions" than terific angel or cowardly worm. You take an extreme view of the latter, it seems.


Boom said...


Actually I make no judgment of Shostakovich's music in this post. Only blatant falsification of facts (examples quoted) regarding his relationship with the Soviet regime.

I continue to marvel at the logic which vilifies Karajan and Furtwangler for conducting in Nazi Germany, but embraces a composer who repeatedly glorified an even more monstrous regime.

serviceton said...

You point remains obtuse. (Perhaps also for the above commenter Peter: "Or do you mean..?")
Presumably you think it is so self-evident as to need no explication.
If your point is that Shostakovich was a loyal communist and regime apologist in 1927, 1930, 1960 or 1961 - you wont find much evidence for it for the earlier two dates, and none at all for the latter two.
From the historical record I mean.
I don't mean the 'musicological record' which has been sufficiently fraught by the "Shostakovich wars" as to be a sometimes confusing and politicized place to tread for non-partisan readers.
But read Elizabeth Wilson's 'A Life Remembered' and Isaak Glikman's 'Story of a Friendship' - neither are musicological/political treatises, but are first-hand historical source materials.

You rightly condemn the regime as monstrous.
But to then treat as empirical 'facts' the by-products of totalitarianism - streams of works dedicated to the regime, obligatory expressions of enthusiasm for the regime, even forced 'membership' of the regime - is a mistake.
The regime requires and promulgates duress - on all stratas of society [especially to those on any sort of public stage] institutionalizes falsehood, and inculcates terror.
You owe to yourself not to take on face-value the pronouncements that "One of our great artists has produced another masterpiece dedicated to our glorious party machine" or "We award the Evil Prize - 1st Class to this great son of our system".
You even have to be skeptical [and this really freaks out a lot of Westerners] - of the artist themselves coming out sometimes and saying "Ah yes, all praise is due to the excellent wonderful very fine leader and the quite glorious system we have here."
They have a gun to their backs and can say little else.

As to your quoted musicologists - it seems to me that's pretty unremarkable run-of-the-mill stuff.
'Grandiosity in a teacup' verbiage that's the stock in trade of musicologists looking to make large, vague pronouncements or finish a chapter with a suitable flourish.
Not so much the full fellatio, as barely a desultory rub .

Boom said...


I much appreciate you taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.
I have no disagreement with anything you say regarding the precarious position of an artist in a totalitarian regime. In fact, I've said this much already in the openning paragraph of my earlier post on Schnittke:

The point of my "Music History" post is not about Shostakovich per se. I don't judge the man, if only because my knowledge of his circumstances derives not so much from books but from having myself lived in the "Land of the Victorious Proletariat".

My post is about what Shostakovich was NOT. He certainly was not a "dissident-hero" or even the source of "truth about the regime" as claimed by so many historians and musicologists who take it upon themselves to fabricate an entirely fictitious (and patently absurd) image of the composer.

serviceton said...

Boom -
late on the reply here - wanted to read your Schnittke link first. (Agreed there that his 'polystylism' leads one to asking "Will the *real* A.S. pls stand up? You're not ringing true here ..")

The Shostakovich situation is tough to talk about as it has become so polarized. You are reacting I think to some of this 'revisionist extremism' in your post here. I guess the issue I might have with your post is that it appears to promulgate the same polarization - but the alternate position at the other end of the scale. However - I better lighten up - this is a blog here, not a dissertation or something..

That Shostakovich 'dissented' from the regime he lived under for the vast majority, if not all, of his adult life has become increasingly clear in the last 20 years. But is this the same 'dissent' as we usually refer to and understand it - or even as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn expressed it, in the late 60's ? No, certainly not (ya wanted it to be that simple?). Did Shostakovich do brave things - things that might have had him censured, sacked, killed? Absolutely he did. There were the private things - dangerously intervening with the apparat on behalf of friends and acquaintances. But more importantly - more rewardingly (for us) - there were the musical works, that were sardonic when all was taken at face value, near-hysterically emotional when daily grotesqueness and insanity was to be suffered stoically & noiselessly, and were tragic when tragedy was outlawed. There is 'dissent' in the 4th and 5th Symphonies, the 8th Quartet, From Jewish Folk Poetry, Rayok .....
But in the end it gets down to your ears. Where you want to go from there is up to you.
For me it was as initially simple as hearing the 5th symphony for the first time. I just said in my head - can there be a way that the same man who has written this genuinely tragic, heartbreaking Largo has also seriously penned this ridiculous piece of bombast that closes out the work?
The man is just too complex and interesting a writer, too good an orchestrator, and too emotionally acute - for that finale to be taken on face value.
It is - must be - a savage, awful, black parody of a 'rejoicing triumphant finale'.
I said it 'must be' - which can get people's hackles up. If you want to hear the 5th's finale as 'majestic' or 'triumphant' - then I guess you just will, and that's fine as far as it goes. But it's missing the irony - and therefore ultimately, the meaning. Like applauding a satirist for good sentence structure and thrilling rhetoric - you ain't got it.
How this relates to any concept of 'heroism' or 'dissent'? In 1937, with his Pravda condemnation 'from the top' ringing fresh in the nation's ears, with his last symphony effectively banned, and with one of the largest programs of mass killings of a population the world has ever seen going on - he turned in the 5th symphony for performance. People in the hall broke down and wept during the Largo and the applause at the finale lasted over half an hour. Brave? I would say brave as fuck.