Book Reviews 44
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Sofia Moshevich’s ambitious new book aims “to provide a practical resource for those who perform, teach, or study Shostakovich’s solo piano compositions” (p. 3). To this end, she gives historical context, commentary on published editions, and detailed performance suggestions for each relevant work in the composer’s catalogue—which Moshevich organises chronologically and divides into four chapters: “Early Works,” “Mature Works,” “The Masterpiece,” and “Works for Children.” The “Early Works” comprise Shostakovich’s brief foray into the “Schoenbergian cosmos”—a poetic image put forth by pianist Vladimir Pleshnakov—including the highly dissonant First Piano Sonata (opus 12) and Aphorisms (opus 13); the “Mature Works” cover the composer’s return to calmer waters, with a close look at the Second Piano Sonata (opus 61) and each of the Twenty-Four Preludes (op. 34); the “Masterpiece” is as expected—Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues (opus 87); and the “Works for Children” treat two lesser-known pieces—Children’s Notebook (opus 69) and Dances of the Dolls.
The historical snippets that begin each section introduce performers to important contextual issues relevant to the work at hand. More than just a cold rehashing of well-known biographical details, these snippets pique the imagination and capture the spirit of the music. Of Aphorisms (no. 6), for instance, Moshevich writes, “‘Etude’ pokes fun at the tedium of technical drills. It begins as a trilling exercise…similar to those in Ignatiy Glyasser’s book on piano technique that Shostakovich had to master as a young student” (p. 34). With just a few words, she gives us a visceral connection to the music—we, too, have experienced the dreadful bore of pedantry! Moshevich also makes less concrete, but equally insightful, connections between the composer’s music and his experience as a young pianist. She notes, for example, how the prayer-like character with which op. 87 begins (Prelude in C major) resembles both the meditative opening of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I) and the “Morning Prayer” of Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album (op. 39)—the first complete cycle that young Mitya performed (p. 97).
Moshevich supplements her pedagogical flair with judicious technical advice, often replacing published fingerings with more user-friendly suggestions. In this difficult passage
from the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 34, no. 14 (Ex. 1), for instance, she advises splitting the melody between hands—a division of labour that renders the pesky trill eminently playable. Her guidance is perhaps most poignant, however, when it takes the form of vivid metaphors. To achieve an “expressive legato cantabile,” she suggests “keeping the fingers flat and ‘glued’ to the keys” (p. 54); and to conquer a colourful dialogue between hands in the Prelude in A, op. 34, no. 7, she advises the student to master the “contrapuntal ‘map’” before colouring in the lines (i.e., filling in the harmony), so as to “yield a better appreciation of the development of individual lines and the subtle emotional shadings created by the harmonic shifts” (ibid.).
As a pedagogical work, Moshevich’s book is invaluable to the aspiring Shostakovich interpreter. From a more scholarly perspective, however, it poses more questions (many implicit) than it answers. From the very start, for instance, the author claims to hone our understanding of Shostakovich’s “idiosyncratic usage of certain musical terms” (p. 1). E.g., What did espressivo mean to him? A worthy question, indeed, but Moshevich’s many answers only obscure the term: how does one reconcile “brighter or more intense” (p. 44) with “deeper and more concentrated” (p. 50), or worse yet, “special prominence” (p. 67) with “a muted saxophone” (p. 60)?
A similar ambiguity characterises several analytical aspects of Moshevich’s study. In Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dance in C, op. 5, no. 1, for example, she hears “certain rhythmic and harmonic formulas” (p. 11) that recall Scriabin’s music, but never tells us what exactly those “formulas” are. And her many formal analyses fail to reference the theories on which they are founded, as if there were only one possible interpretation. Does her use of the term “sentence” (p. 86), for instance, refer to Schoenberg’s classic definition thereof, or does it invoke an older, and more ambiguous, tradition of using linguistic metaphors to describe music—an approach to form that was problematised by Heinrich Koch already in the eighteenth century? Or what about the alleged sonata form structures of opp. 12 and 61? From where does the term “developmental section” come from with respect to a sonata exposition? How does this analysis relate to relevant historical theories of musical
form (e.g., A.B. Marx)? And how does it engage with current views (e.g., James Webster, James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, William E. Caplin)? In Moshevich’s defence, her book is not a theoretical treatise. But a scholar should always acknowledge the assumptions that linger behind analytical statements, as Moshevich herself often does when merging technical advice with source studies—one of the main aspects of her work.
In this vein, Moshevich demonstrates a keen eye for discrepancies between published editions and the composer’s autographs. This is especially true of her work on the Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, as she appends specific “autograph notes” to each pair. Much of Moshevich’s work in this area focuses on pedal markings. As she emphasises time and time again, “Shostakovich’s pedal indications… are not random and should not be ‘corrected’” (p. 47). To this end, she highlights a number of instances (often printing excerpts from the autograph score) in which the composer’s original markings have been unduly changed or misrepresented by various editors, including erroneously altered dynamics and slurs. From time to time, however, Moshevich’s otherwise excellent editorial work is marred by hyperbole. In one instance, she writes that “a comparison between any published edition at hand will reveal a number of discrepancies,” and goes on to identify slurs and pedal markings in op. 34, no. 1, to demonstrate her point, seemingly unaware that the 1976 Schirmer edition (ed. György Sandor), which appears in her bibliography, conforms to the autographs she reproduces in the book. In fact, the one discrepancy (an editorial D-natural at the very end of m. 3) seems to escape her notice.
In the end, it is difficult to render a final verdict on Moshevich’s work. One the one hand, it is an indispensable resource for piano students interested in Shostakovich’s music. On the other hand, it lacks scholarly rigour in a number of areas. Perhaps the overarching issue is that the book’s very nature remains unclear, in part because it wants to be so many things at once. In fact, this was one of the main critiques launched against Moshevich’s first book, Dmitri Shostakovich: Pianist (McGill-Queens University Press, 2004). What begins as a historically informed handbook on playing Shostakovich’s piano works turns into selected commentary on piano technique and interpretation, source studies, biography, history, compositional style and influence, musical form, and twentieth-century pianistic traditions. And this eclectic mix of information—much of it underdeveloped—is the book’s Achilles heel.
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Here’s an experiment to try with M.T. Anderson’s extraordinary new study of the Seventh Symphony: give it to someone who doesn’t know that Anderson is an award-winning children’s author, and see how long it takes them to work out that they’re reading a kids’ book.
They won’t be tipped off by any lack of scholarly rigour; Symphony for the City of the Dead is as well-researched and referenced as any book on Shostakovich that I’ve read. Nor will the vocabulary give it away. Anderson clearly has faith in young readers’ ability to grapple with words like ensorcelled and threnody. If an adult reader picks up on any hint of the book’s intended audience, it might be a certain companionability in the author’s tone. He’s not just parading the events of Shostakovich’s life before the reader; he’s by the reader’s side, helping them to make sense of what they see.
Another clue might be what Anderson chooses to highlight. While the heart of his book deals with the writing and early performances of the Seventh Symphony, fully the first third is devoted to the composer’s life before then, with particular emphasis on his childhood and adolescence. We hear about the house where young Mitya spent his summers (“The builder had mistaken the measurements, confusing centimetres and metres, so the rooms were huge and the windows were tiny”), how he got on with his sisters, and quite a lot about his first love. Shostakovich’s mother comes off rather badly: often hysterical, over-indulgent of her son and attempting to control his life until the day he marries. Most biographers I’ve read have taken a more generous view of her, but Anderson surely conveys how it must have felt to be a teenager in her house.
It’s not till the last chapter of Part One that we get to the Terror, and the Siege itself has to wait till Part Two. Grown-ups are likely to have encountered a lot of the material here in other books (particularly Brian Moynahan’s Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, reviewed in DSCH43), but Anderson recounts the story exceptionally well. He knows when to step back and give the big picture (kids who read this book will end up with a better understanding of the terms Bolshevik, Communist, socialist, Marxist and Soviet than the average political commentator) and when to zero in on particular episodes. He tells these with the immediacy of scenes from a novel (though so far as I can tell, he doesn’t invent dialogue), and he has an eye for arresting details. Setting the scene for Shostakovich’s pre-broadcast introduction:
We still have the piece of paper on which he typed out the message he read on air. Shostakovich must have left it on a desk at the radio station when he was finished with the announcement. It was used for scrap paper. On the other side, the studio director scribbled his notes about the line-up of radio shows for the next day’s broadcasts: instructions on how to construct barricades, suggestions for how to defend your home against German troops, and, finally, the recipe for Molotov cocktails.
Talking about the death of Mayakovsky:
At eight o’clock the evening of his death, the Futurist [Mayakovsky]’ s brain was removed surgically from his skull. The State Institute for the Study of the Brain put it on a scale to determine the precise weight of genius. They found that it weighed 1,700 grams, whereas the standard human brain weighed 1,400…Everything was calculated and precise, as it should be when the future arrives.
And, as father and son catch a plane out of Leningrad:
As little Maxim got into the car, he asked his father what would happen if the Germans crashed into them. Shostakovich was startled: it was the first time young Maxim had ever pronounced his r’s correctly.
Anderson does break new ground in a lengthy section discussing how the Seventh was received in America. He has written an academic paper on the microfilmed symphony’s dramatic journey to the U.S.: “The Flight of the Seventh: The Voyage of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony to the West.”1 There’s plenty of entertaining anecdote here—such as the story of how the clarinettist of the NBC Radio Orchestra “discovered that Russian clarinets had an extra hole. He had to bore his own,” and the stripper who asked for (and was presumably denied) permission to perform a routine to the invasion theme. But Anderson also puts the symphony in the context of American-Soviet relations, and discusses how Shostakovich’s image was altered to suit this new audience:
The Time article acquainted Americans with the myth of Shostakovich…During the Russian Revolution he had been “a pale, slight, impressionable little bourgeois boy who clung to a servant’s hand in the battle-littered streets of Petrograd.” In propaganda for the Soviets, the last thing Shostakovich would have wanted said about him was that he had ever been “bourgeois” in the age of Lenin. That was enough to get you shot. Now, however, for an American audience, it was important to have come from a middle-class family, to have had servants…Everything in the article is designed to suggest that Shostakovich is really just like an American dad reading Time, sprawled on his sofa.
The book carries on past the end of the war, discussing Zhdanov’s anti-formalist campaign at some length and giving a summary of Shostakovich’s life thereafter. Oddly for a book whose first part focused so much on domestic life, the main text doesn’t mention Nina’s death or Shostakovich’s subsequent marriages. (Perhaps Anderson’s trying to avoid the less child-friendly aspects of the composer’s personal life; he refers to his affair with Elena Konstantinovskaya as a “crush.”)
While I can’t entirely agree with Anderson’s suggestion that his readers try to understand symphonies by “think[ing] of them as movie music without the movie,” his analyses of Shostakovich’s works are thoughtful and vivid, and should give young people an idea of how to listen perceptively. But what I like best about this book is how Anderson encourages critical thinking about the many controversies and myths surrounding Shostakovich.
Look, for example, at how he handles the famous story of young Shostakovich going to see Lenin’s arrival at Finland Station. He starts by telling the story just as it was related in standard Soviet biographies. Then he tells the reader that the accuracy of the story is disputed. So far, so predictable. But then he goes further:
At the time when Shostakovich would have seen Lenin at the station, so shortly after the February Revolution, the Bolshevik leader would have only been one Revolutionary extremist among many. No one could have foreseen that he would rise so quickly to power. Moreover, Shostakovich’s parents, though they were in favour of the Revolution like many, were certainly not radical Bolsheviks. It’s doubtful they would have taken much notice of Lenin at the time. Would their ten-yearold son have gone out of his way to see this man step off a train? It’s not impossible, but we also can’t take it for granted.
It’s been a while since a book about Shostakovich impressed me this much. Symphony for the City of the Dead is worth reading whatever your age.
1. http://www.academia.edu/14691419/The_Flight_of_the_Seventh_The_Voyage_of_Dmitri_Shostakovichs_Leningrad_Symphony_to_the_West (accessed 24 January 2016)
Laura Del Col Brown
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Popularly, “Soviet Music” is primarily Shostakovich and Prokofiev with a few pieces by other composers: bits of Khachaturian’s ballets and, after some prompting, perhaps some Kabalevsky. Then there are some avant-gardists whose notoriety may make them more written about than performed: Mosolov, Roslavets, and, beyond those, even more obscure characters.
Of course, this is a ludicrously partial view but however worthy, some composers have not broken through or, having once been popular, are now overlooked. The prime example of the latter is Nikolai Myaskovsky: the first half of the 20th century saw famous conductors and orchestras in both East and West commission and regularly programme his work. But now his cycle of 27 symphonies is sometimes cited more for its size than its perceived quality, though even with this status, they overshadow his 13 string quartets, nine piano sonatas, and numerous songs.
Ultimately Myaskovsky was a victim of history and a populist desire for a satisfying story-arc. For Shostakovich that was an almost classic model—early triumph; set-back (Lady Macbeth); return; set-back (1948); and a final bittersweet intermingling of artistic success and personal sadness. For Prokofiev it was a sadder one of a lifetime’s restless search followed by gradual constraint, capped with the final irony of death on the same day as his nemesis.
For Myaskovsky, there was no glorious return with a “response to just criticism,” nor a romanticisable death. Perhaps this lack of an exciting political back-story contributed to his falling profile, so that when Soviet composers were divided into “good” and “bad,” according to how deeply they had suffered and how vociferously they had opposed the regime, Myaskovsky again “failed.” With no propaganda-film or agit-theatre scores, and with no banned causes celebres, he seemed neither to have had to “compromise” his art nor to have overtly clashed with the authorities. In politically-driven and excitement-hungry times, he developed a reputation as a dull workaday composer of “academic,” “gloomy,” “neo-Tchaikovskian” music who had barely developed through his career, and was either happy to do what was necessary to survive or simply not exciting the authorities to any particular opinion. Needless to say, a comprehensive view of his work would disprove these charges.
Tassie describes Myaskovsky as “the conscience of Soviet music,” based on his refusal to be cowed by the regime. It’s true that he largely managed to avoid propaganda productions, but his work-list does include a few understandable concessions, mainly in the vocal works of the 1930s. However, Myaskovsky did not ascribe opus numbers to most of these works, distancing them from his main output. Perhaps his reputation and the subtlety of his dissidence have led scholars not to look too hard.
The most extensive source is the composer’s long-time friend and proponent Alexei Ikonikov. He completed Kratkii ocherk zhizni i tvorchestvo in early 1941, adding a brief supplement before Muzgiz published it in 1943/44. Khudozhnik nashikh dnei (Moscow: Muzyka, 1966) covered the composer’s entire life, though the musical analyses heavily favour the symphonies. But, despite Myaskovsky’s popularity, extended writing in English was rare: for many years the main source for Anglophones was Myaskovsky: His Life and Work (New York Philosophical Library, 1946), a translation of Ikonikov’s 1944 book.
Tassie interleaves Myaskovsky’s life and works with contemporary events, giving a good overview, though there is one structural quirk: chapter four covers the years of the Revolution, Civil War and First World War in a single gulp. As Tassie explains in his preface, this complex and confusing period in Myaskovsky’s life is difficult to subdivide satisfyingly, not only historically but in tracing Myaskovsky’s developing and sometimes ambivalent attitude to these events. But it means that the book races ahead and we read about the premieres of works, such as the Seventh Symphony, that we were unaware had even been written, so that chapter 5 takes some steps back in time to fill in details. Tassie brings a welcome focus on his other roles. Myaskovsky was a respected teacher and critic: work that would bear complete translation, ideally supplemented from his as yet incompletely published diaries and selections from Shlifstein’s two volumes of documents. Tassie’s quotations from these make particularly welcome supplements to material that, whether in English or Russian, and however rare, is already available.
However, at a more detailed level, there are other problems.
Tassie doesn’t really interrogate the material, failing to tease out implications or raise questions. Why, for instance would Prokofiev criticise one of Myaskovsky’s Whimsies, yet go on to record it shortly afterwards? There may not be an answer, but the question does not even seem to have occurred to Tassie. Several other commentaries are inexplicably at odds with the quotes we have just read.
One more pass by the copy-editor would have helped in other ways. Myaskovsky’s view of the Second Cello Sonata is reported on both pages 295 and 296 (albeit differently translated) and there are other duplications (sometimes further separated). The lists of unglossed lists of names leave one wondering who these people are and why they disappear almost immediately. One-line pen-portraits of some of the not-so-major figures might have helped.
The reason may be a certain hurriedness on the part of the author. As Daniel Jaffé noted in his BBC Music Magazine review (September 2014, pp. 94–95), parts of Tassie’s text are, let us say, “deeply dependent” on Ikonikov’s 1946 volume. The 1941 cantata Kirov is With Us is not one of Myaskovsky’s better-known pieces. Nevertheless, it is possible to hear it online. Just a few hundred copies of the score would have been printed and if Tassie was unable (quite understandably) to locate one he could have explained that, before writing a section based on what he heard, supported by others’ opinions. But Tassie’s description is a wholesale recycling of Ikonikov’s 1946 account. All this, alas, goes by without the merest acknowledgement, beyond footnotes for brief direct quotes and an entry in the bibliography.
And this is not a one-off way of dealing with a hard-to-find work. The (relatively) better known 22nd symphony is dealt with similarly, and some other descriptions turn out to be filleted Ikonikov with an occasional substituted synonym. Tassie is often happy to credit his predecessors for a phrase or two, but the larger borrowings raise the question as to where the line between him and A.N.Other(s) can be drawn.
Myaskovsky’s aesthetic rehabilitation is clearly one of Tassie’s aims, and perhaps the mere existence of the book will help, but there is little sense of a burning necessity to hear the music. Meanwhile, he keenly proposes that Myaskovsky suffered as much as anyone, perhaps in some attempt to justify the work, and seeming implicitly to buy into the old “suffering equals quality” argument. He certainly did not get the adulation that was accorded some others, but to be ignored is not necessarily to suffer, and in some circumstances may actually be a blessing.
Still, there are valuable elements: the work-list (including publishing details) and discography are comprehensive, though combining them would have alleviated the necessity of flicking to and fro. The bibliography, too, with a bizarre omission of any mention of Patrick Zuk from Durham University, the author of over a dozen articles on Myaskovsky in both English and Russian, who is currently working on his own book on the composer.
John Leman Riley