Review: Shostakovich Against Stalin

Posted: January 4, 2012 in Artistry, Cinema, Classical Music, History, Media, Music
Tags: ,

I borrowed from the Chicago Public Library (CPL) the DVD Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies (1997). This is very much the sort of media public libraries ought to collect, along with nonfiction and reference titles. Undoubtedly, the CPL knows its patrons better than I do, so its primary focus lies instead with popular fiction, popular music, and feature films (this last in direct competition with video stores or the ubiquitous Redbox). I suppose I shouldn’t complain, since I borrow liberally.

I learn of new titles only infrequently, now that classical music is no longer available in record stores and browsing must be done online. Further, major orchestras have begun weaning themselves from the record labels as the means of production have been democratized. Some orchestras have also begun to concentrate on multimedia: DVDs of concert and stage performances or educational efforts aimed at illuminating the music. For instance, the San Francisco Symphony has a steadily expanding series called Keeping Score, while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has its own multimedia stage production called Beyond the Score, an installment of which was made into a companion DVD to its CD recording of Shostakovich Symphony No. 4.

Shostakovich Against Stalin falls into the educational category; it’s a profile (not a full biography) of Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the symphonies he composed during Josef Stalin’s tyrannical reign, specifically, nos. 4–9. Unaccountably, Symphony No. 10, premiered the same year as Stalin’s death, with its furious scherzo depicting Stalin himself, is omitted. The DVD is replete with talking heads, many of them musicologists, friends and family of the composer, fellow composers, and even survivors of the Siege of Leningrad. These are interspersed with archival footage of the composer, street scenes, Stalinist propaganda films, and modern footage of conductor Valery Gergiev leading the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (or sometimes Gergiev inexplicably riding around in the back of a cab). Musical excerpts of commercial recordings made by Gergiev with the Kirov Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic are also included. (The Kirov Orchestra also goes by the name Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra.) Which ensemble actually appears onscreen is a little up for grabs, but I recognized at least one member of the Rotterdam Philharmonic mugging for the camera. There are some amazing finds in the historical footage, including Shostakovich at the piano playing his own music, which is cleverly faded into from the orchestral playing. Video of people walking by corpses during the Siege are especially harrowing.

All this is very interesting, of course, and adds depth of understanding to the music, but I’m nonetheless bothered by yoking the music to imagery that often overwhelms the musical content — the same way musical soundtracks often telegraph emotional states in cinema that really ought to be earned through competent storytelling. While musical expression does indeed arise out of historical context, abstract forms such as the symphony are nonrepresentational, and their meanings ultimately lie beyond interpretations too closely tied to events.

The DVD tries to paint Shostakovich as doing battle with Stalin, valiantly resisting edicts from on high that Soviet music only celebrate the glories of Stalin and life in the U.S.S.R. as it embarked on modernization and industrialization before, during, and after WWII. Well, sure, that was all true to an extent, but it is unclear whether Shostakovich was actively resisting (as in denouncing Stalin via protest coded into the music), had knuckled under (due to very real threats to life and limb), or was simply expressing himself musically as best he could under sorely difficult circumstances. The final remarks on the DVD indicate that we have some great music as a result of this struggle, which is reminiscent of well-established tropes about great art being the product of suffering. If I were inclined to misinterpreting such remarks, I’d say we have Stalin to thank for the conditions under which Shostakovich’s great symphonies were conceived and executed. That interpretation is heinous, of course, but not so different from the one about an epic battle of wills between artist and state, eventually won through indomitable spirit and the self-congratulatory assessment of posterity.

As a listener of some erudition, none of this matters to my appreciation of the symphonies (never elsewhere called the “war symphonies”). The bitterness, sarcasm, cynicism, shrieking hysteria, and balefulness of much of Shostakovich’s music is obvious without the history lessons, and his mixture of grandiosity and resignation are equally apparent. However, those are negative descriptors that fit well with the DVD’s underlying theme of suffering and stridency. What’s missing is mention or illustration of the astonishing beauty in many musical passages, even those of heartbreaking sorrow, including, for instance, the plaintive oboe solo of the 2nd movt. of the 5th, the wailing woodwind chorale of the 3rd movt. of the 7th, the hammering machine of the ostinati everywhere in Shostakovich but especially in the chase-like scherzo (3rd movt.) of the 8th, or the awesome foreboding of the opening bass lines of the 1st movt. of the 10th (again, why out of scope?). The DVD, or more properly its creator Larry Weinstein, adopts a filter and thus cannot be all things to all people, but in doing so, it risks putting an extramusical straitjacket on the music that may be too influential on credulous viewers and listeners.

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