When Kurt Masur leads the New York Philharmonic in performances of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” on October 27–29, the courageous side of this enigmatic composer will be showcased through his love and respect for Jewish causes and music.
Shostakovich lived his life running before threats from the Soviet government. It began in 1936 when Stalin and a group of officials attended the premiere of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. They didn’t like it. Their displeasure resulted in an unsigned article in Pravda, “Muddle instead of music,” blasting the work. On one level it was a bad review based on musical ignorance, but the article also contained a chilling warning: “This is playing at things beyond reason that can end very badly.”
We know Shostakovich survived. But he lived a hard life, looking over his shoulder in fear of that very bad ending. It wasn’t much better after Stalin died. The “thaw” brought in a new generation of Politburo thugs who censored and mentally bludgeoned the composer. The regimes of Malenkov, Krushschev and Brezhnev also continued the institutionalized anti-Semitism that pre-dated the Communist revolution.
Shostakovich used Jewish themes more than any non-Jewish composer in the Soviet era, but it’s difficult to pinpoint when he first developed this interest. He grew up in a tolerant household. In Solomon Volkov’s Testimony (the controversial Shostakovich memoirs), the composer remembers, “My parents considered anti-Semitism a shameful superstition.” During World War II, “The Jews became the most persecuted people and defenseless people of Europe. It was a return to the Middle Ages. . . . All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them.”
(Before I move ahead, a brief word about Volkov and Testimony. There’s still lots of debate about the memoirs, which were, according to Volkov, dictated to him by Shostakovich. Most scholars agree it was unlikely Shostakovich dictated them verbatim, and evidence suggests that Volkov and Shostakovich might have met only in passing. However, as Wendy Lesser points out in her fascinating Music for Silenced Voices, Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, the oral testimony of the composer’s friends and family now suggest that “Shostakovich could never have been the placidly obedient Party apparatchik he was sometimes made to seem.”)
|Volkov and Shostakovich|
Shostakovich first used Jewish themes in his music in 1944. He completed Rothschild’s Violin, an unfinished opera by his Jewish student Benjamin Fleischmann, who died in the Battle of Leningrad. The opera was based on a Chekov story about a Jew and a non-Jew and the peace they eventually make with each other (a parable on Russian-Jewish relations). Shostakovich was branded a Zionist for his efforts.
Siding with the Jews in Soviet Russia has always been a dangerous move. Stalin’s “great terror” of the 1930s featured expedient political murders but also served as a thinly veiled pogrom targeting Jewish intellectuals. Things never really improved for Russian Jewry. Shostakovich took a brave stance using Jewish themes in his music.
In the Piano Trio, Op. 67 (also written in 1944), Shostakovich fully tapped into the Jewish spirit. He dedicated the work to his late friend, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, who was Jewish. Sollertinsky was a supporter of Shostakovich’s music (and Mahler’s), but in the Politburo’s 1936 campaign against musical formalism was labeled a “bard of formalism.” In the Trio’s final movement, Shostakovich bravely pays tribute to Sollertinsky, Fleischmann and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The movement draws on Jewish dance music and is laced with a macabre tone that heightens its pain. Shostakovich knew about SS guards who forced Jewish victims to dance over their own graves, and the ghastly story is never far away in the music.
|Shostakovich and Sollertinsky|
Shostakovich’s next three works also had significantly Jewish elements, and were not performed until after Stalin’s death. The Violin Concerto No.1 (written in 1948 and premiered in 1955), From Jewish Folk Poetry (written in 1948 and premiered in 1964) and the String Quartet No. 4 (written in 1949 and premiered in 1953).
With the 1962 Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar,” Shostakovich made his boldest statement of solidarity with Jewish causes, while also tweaking the nose of the Soviet system. In 1941, SS units and Ukrainian sympathizers murdered nearly 34,000 Jews in two days at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev. The dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” reflects on the massacre and is a searing condemnation of anti-Semitism. Shostakovich was mesmerized by the poem and planned to set it as a cantata, but eventually added other Yevtushenko poems to the work and it became a five movement symphony for baritone, chorus and orchestra. The symphony premiered in 1962 at a time when Kruschchev was battling dissident artists so, once again, Shostakovich faced the wrath of the Soviet system. The work was not banned, but censors forced the composer to make some changes to the text.
Like so many Shostakovich works, “Babi Yar” is filled with agonized passages, sardonic humor and piercing beauty. Shostakovich brilliantly captures the terror of the massacre in the opening movement. In succeeding movements he goes on to cry out against the inequities of the Soviet system, attacking it with his trademark black humor and sense of the grotesque.
In the last movement he reaches transcendence when he cites Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton and Tolstoy as men who were reviled by authority figures. Yevtushenko’s poem says, “Those who cursed them are forgotten, but the accursed are remembered well.” Shostakovich might be speaking for himself as well as Yevtushenko and the millions crushed by the Nazis and the Soviet system.
“Babi Yar” is one of the great cries against intolerance and totalitarianism, and its message is timeless. Let’s hope it’s heard.