Book Reviews 25
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Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos: An Owner’s Manual, by David Hurwitz.
Paperback, 222 pages.
Amadeus Press, 2006.
Includes full-length CD of Symphony No. 5 featuring Yuri Ahronovitch and the Stockholm PO (originally released as BIS CD 357).
Mass market books about Shostakovich have tended to focus on the biographical and political aspects of his career at the expense of his music. Musical matters, at least until recently, have been mostly left to scholars writing about individual works in lofty, academic journals. Now along comes David Hurwitz to help correct this imbalance. Hurwitz gives us what has long been needed, a panoramic survey of Shostakovich’s symphonies and concerti in which the music is positioned front and center. The book merits an enthusiastic welcome into the Shostakovich bibliography. The only other English language works that address in detail this same repertoire head on are both long out-of-print: Hugh Ottoway’s superb 1978 BBC Music Guide, Shostakovich Symphonies and Roy Blokker and Robert Dearling’s longer, if less illuminating “The Music of Dmitri Shostakovich: The Symphonies”, published Tantivy Press (1979).
A founder and director of the online classical music magazine, ClassicsToday.com, Hurwitz comes to his subject well-informed and opinionated. For one thing, he finds the raging controversies that have plagued most Shostakovich studies essentially useless as aids in gaining insight into the music. Instead, what Hurwitz seeks to do, he declares in the introduction to his “owner’s manual”, is to make a fresh start. Shunning what he perceives as the presumptive subtexts that too often attach to Shostakovich’s music, Hurwitz sets out to embrace the essence of Shostakovich in purely musical terms. After all, he asks, doesn’t Shostakovich’s music deserve the same analytical objectivity that we accord the music of other great composers?
“Owner’s Manual” aptly describes Hurwitz’s eminently “hands-on”, or rather “ears-on”, approach. The historical context is briefly given for each work, but the ensuing movement-by-movement discussions dwell mainly on the notes and the way they’re put together – in a word, on what we hear, the music itself, its form, its melodic line, its expressive content, etc. The reader, or should we say listener, is led point by point into and through the listening experience. Hurwitz’s approach is practical and user-friendly. That’s especially true of the language, which achieves a kind of happy balance – not so technical as to overwhelm the non-specialist, technical enough to be able to explain to the same non-specialist what in Shostakovich’s music calls for a technical explanation. At the same time the seasoned listener, not to be left out, will be rewarded with ample insights into Shostakovich’s art he or she may not before have been aware of.
Except for the Fifth Symphony presented at the outset as the archetype of Shostakovich’s compositional process, the works are treated in chronological order. For the Fifth, Hurwitz uses track and timings of the included CD recording of the work to pinpoint structural junctures as he guides the reader through the work’s formal and emotional terrain. He thereby establishes the tone of the remaining discussions.
As an example of Hurwitz’s straight-talking style, take his description of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. Whereas Hugh Ottoway finds the movement’s form “equivocal” and in it a “strong suggestion of subject-groups and a hide-and-seek relationship with sonata form … a many-sided non-functionalism, some arbitrary climaxes and changes in direction”, Hurwitz (could he be responding to Ottoway’s cerebral rhetoric?) finds the structure “incredibly simple in its basic outlines: ABABA”. Citing a composer’s need, over lengthy spans, to maximize contrasts and provide constant variety, he goes on to explain that “…great composers often follow… the rule that the larger… the movement, the simpler the form”. He then proceeds to take the reader through the details of each of the identified sections. While noting their formal relevance, he spends the time celebrating the imaginativeness of the material rather than wrangling over issues of structural displacement and formal ambiguities.
Hurwitz’s broadly simplified analysis works. Details abound, Hurwitz gets many of them in, yet they are always kept in the context of the larger picture, the bird’s-eye view that allows you to gain insight into the work in its entirety.
He points out, for example, that almost every theme in the Eighth Symphony is based on the three-note cell that opens the work – in its original form throughout the first two movements and in inverted form in the remaining three. What more concise way is there to sum up this mammoth work’s meta-design? And where else can one find the form of the Palace Square movement of the Eleventh so neatly summarized as ABABCBA? Or the finale of the Second Cello Concerto cogently if redoubtably resolved into modified variations form? A tabular summary of each movement’s form is provided in the appendix.
Hurwitz has a lot to say about thematic relationships in Shostakovich’s music within and across movements. He regards the material in each of the first movements of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies as deriving monothematically from the ideas presented in the opening bars. The tender second subjects of the first movements of the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, for example, are seen as expanded time-value versions of the first subjects. Pay special attention to the shape of the rising oboe phrase at the beginning of the Ninth, he advises, as it returns in simplified form as the principal theme of the finale. Note as well that the rising theme on horns in the Allegro of the Sixth is a variation of the opening bars of the Largo. “Compare the rhythm of the first four notes of each tune, and you’ll catch the similarity immediately.”
Moments like this make the “Owner’s Manual” valuable to have around. Still, Hurwitz can be sometimes incautious in his comparisons, as when he claims that the development section of the Twelfth Symphony’s opening movement “actually quotes” the Eleventh Symphony’s “massacre fugue”. He would have been on safer grounds, in my opinion, being content to point out the strong idiomatic similarity. On the other hand, Hurwitz thought-provokingly draws parallels between Shostakovich works and those of other composers. He notes, for example, a kinship between the Adagio of the Twelfth Symphony and Act 1 Scene I of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and between the sonorities of the Fears setting of the Thirteenth Symphony and the finale of Mahler’s Sixth.
Another highlight of the book is the treatment of the relationship between words and music in the Thirteenth Symphony. Hurwitz’s line-by-line discussion of Yevtushenko’s verse and Shostakovich’s musical rendering of it is particularly eloquent. The eleven poems of the Fourteenth Symphony are given similar but necessarily abbreviated treatment. Hurwitz seems to have missed the darkly tragic currents running through the two later concerti for violin and cello, finding, for example, “no bitterness” in the finale of the Second Violin Concerto. At the same time he confidently sees his way through their respective musical structures.
Hurwitz steers clear of political subtext, as much as the subject can be avoided. He quite aptly dismisses the Leninite subtitles of the Twelfth Symphony as mere decoys, and then presents a musical discussion that will have even listeners familiar with the work returning to listen again and again to this most underrated of mature Shostakovich symphonies. In the few times that it is mentioned, Testimony is appropriately referred to as the “purported” memoirs of Shostakovich.
Moreover, Hurwitz takes issue with statements supposedly made by Shostakovich/Volkov with regard to the Seventh Symphony. And yet in another part of the book, he accepts without question the notion that the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony presents a calculated portrait of Stalin – a notion, he seems to forget, that originally derives from Testimony. Curiously, Hurwitz goes on to ques-tion the provenance and musical relevance of the Elmira theme in the Tenth Sym-phony, despite the docum-entation in Shostakovich’s own letters (Fay, p. 187). As to whether the rejoicing in the finale of the Fifth is sincere, cynical, or merely gestural, he suggests that each view is equally valid, thus allowing the listener to make up his or her own mind. This position wisely defends both music’s inherent ambiguity and Shostakovich’s entitlement to that ambiguity. Hurwitz also points out that ambiguous finales appear throughout Shostakovich’s oeuvre, starting as early as the First Symphony.
My principal reservation with the book is the complete absence of musical examples – as is the case in other volumes of the “Unlocking the Masters” series (which include similar guides to the music of Dvorak and Mahler). One might question the editorial decision to do without them. After all, the detailed discussions in the text assume a level of interest and sophistication that corresponds to the ability to read a simple staff of notes. I am not doubting Hurwitz’s skills in writing about music capably and intelligibly in the absence of such illustrations, which he indeed does.
Yet there are times when the text simply cries out for the clarification of musical examples, as, for instance, in the survey of the Fourth Symphony’s thematic cornucopia and in the sorting out of the myriad thematic references in the Eleventh Symphony.
One hopes this matter will be reconsidered in a subsequent edition.
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The following text (in Russian) prefaces the book.
Introduction by Galina and Maxim Shostakovich to Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin.
This book is devoted to the eternal problem of the opposition between artist and tyrant.
In plumbing the depths of the work of Dmitri Shostakovich, one realizes that his music, like the creations of all the truly Great Artists, is devoted to the endless battle between Good and Evil, Love and Hate, Joy and Sorrow, brought to an extreme inner tension in its very essence.
Born into the terrifying twentieth century and having survived and withstood it, Shostakovich, like a prophet, reflected the terrible tragedy of his times in the language of his creativity, as if in a pitiless mirror.
One often hears the question: “How would have Shostakovich written if he had lived in a free world, not knowing sorrow, need, or fear?” Alas, the opposition of Good and Evil is inherent to all times, all ages, all political systems.
Take, for instance, Shostakovich’s Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony. It is perfectly obvious that the symphony is not only about World War II. It is a symphony about the wars that have taken place and that are yet to come in the future, about the tragedies and cataclysms that our people suffered during the Communist tyranny, and most importantly, about Mankind, forced to suffer and live through all this.
This applies to all of Shostakovich’s work. Recently the composer Boris Tishchenko, a student of his, decided to time the famous “invasion episode” in the first movement of the Leningrad Symphony. The episode consists of 350 measures and at the metronome setting of 126 per quarter note, it lasts for exactly 666,666 seconds.
That is the Number of the Beast from the Apocalypse. It is unlikely that the composer had calculated the formula intentionally. Undoubtedly, this was a revelation from Providence.
The Lord protects his prophets. Shostakovich survived, Shostakov-ich won.
Looking back, it is difficult to imagine a more terrible time for an artist than the Stalinist period. Shostakovich and many of his outstanding contemporaries were puppets in the hands of the insidious puppet master: if he so wished, he executed them, if he so wished, he spared them.
Gathering a wealth of material, Solomon Volkov reveals to the reader in great detail the ugliness and terrible unpredictability of that “theater” where the puppets were real people with real lives.
The vicious milestones of the past are gradually fading from memory. Volkov’s book is a reminder.
Shostakovich is no more, but his eternal music, which is both his confession and sermon, and often his prophesy, will always cast down Evil and celebrate the triumph of Good.
We, Shostakovich’s children, who watched his life pass before our eyes, express our profound gratitude to Solomon Volkov for his marvelous work, the naked truth of which will undoubtedly help our contemporaries and future generations better to see the difficult fate of our unforgettable father, and through it, better to understand his music.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
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The importance of the Fourth Symphony within Shostakovich’s output is difficult to overestimate. Composed between 1934 and 1936, it remains the most enigmatic of all of his symphonies. Shostakovich himself referred to this work as ‘his creative credo’; however, after the abrupt withdrawal of the symphony on the eve of its premiere in December 1936, the true reasons for which remain a mystery, the work was not performed publicly until 1961.
One of the most plausible explanations for the turbulent performance history of this work may be Shostakovich’s need to defend himself from accusations of formalism in the wake of the damning Pravda review of his opera Lady Macbeth in January 1936. His protective stance towards his new compositional principles, on which the Fourth Symphony is based, was evident in as early as April 1935, when he wrote the following in a newspaper article entitled ‘My creative path’:
“It is unforgivably foolish to defame a work as formalistic on the grounds that its language is complex and not immediately comprehensible. My main task now is to find my own simple and expressive musical language”.
The composer’s letters to Isaak Glikman are clear testament to the value he held towards the symphony and its merit as a “composition of expansive thought and immense passion; and, consequently, one of great responsibility”. Given the socio-political climate of the time, this emphasis on ‘responsibility’ is in many ways the crux of Pauline Fairclough’s brilliant and penetrating analysis in A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.
Notwithstanding an enormous interest in the Fourth Symphony from musicians and audiences, there has been somewhat of lacunae in musicological studies on this work. It is therefore particularly appropriate that a stimulating and meticulously researched book on this symphony has been published in Shostakovich’s centenary year.
Beautifully written and nicely paced, Fairclough’s thesis is clearly stated from the outset: “…the Fourth Symphony seems to encapsulate the hope, idealism, fear and sheer insanity of those years more compellingly than does any other contemporary Soviet musical work” (p. x, Foreword). She argues convincingly that the Fourth Symphony, which was created at a critical stage in Soviet symphonism, is not only an exceptional representative of its era, but is also an attempt by the composer to break into a new and radically different musical territory.
In one of the opening chapters, Fairclough provides a perceptive study of the political and aesthetic background to the Soviet symphony in the 1930s. Her survey of forms, methods of development and musical language prevalent in Soviet symphonies of the 1930s by Myaskovsky, Kabalevsky, Khrennikov, Shebalin and Popov is particularly helpful in enhancing our understanding of the accepted principles of Soviet symphonism at the time when Shostakovich was working on his Fourth Symphony.
Fairclough’s informative overview of the developments in the Soviet symphonism in the 1930s is complemented by an in-depth analysis of the score of the symphony. Her interpretation avoids drawing direct associations between historical events and music, but is shaped nevertheless by an acute awareness of historical context. Fairclough’s wide-ranging analytical approaches to interpreting the score of the Fourth Symphony are informed and enhanced by the music, theatre and literary criticism of Shostakovich’s contemporaries. Her references to the concepts explored by Mikhail Bakhtin, Boris Asafiev and Vsevolod Meyerhold, for example, are very helpful in establishing the analytical premises required for discussing the music. Furthermore, Fairclough’s overview of Ivan Sollertinsky’s and Theodor Adorno’s studies of Mahler provides some valuable insights into the distinctly ‘Mahlerian’ tone of the Fourth Symphony.
In her approach to analysis of the form, Fairclough fuses the Western predilection for structural discussion, which focuses on tonal and motivic coherence, and the Soviet tendency towards more descriptive critical accounts. This preference for grounding her study in both Western and Soviet music theories, with equal measure of consideration to their respective values, is a novel and refreshing way to analyse the music.
Fairclough’s generous use of musical examples, structural tables and linear and motivic summaries of various parts of the symphony provides lucid illustrations for her theoretical findings. Whilst for the non-specialist reader the analytical section of the book may appear daunting, it is clearly an integral part of Fairclough’s study, which strives to enhance the understanding of this great work by examining its score in minute detail.
In this study Fairclough proves herself not only an astute and perceptive interpreter of Shostakovich’s most enigmatic work, but also an impressive musicologist of one of the most turbulent Soviet periods. Her book has raised the bar to which all proceeding works on the Fourth Symphony must aspire.