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Thread: Shostakovich Symphony 15 Peace Summit

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    Default Shostakovich Symphony 15 Peace Summit

    Shostakovich's 15th Symphony... mentioned by Robert Newman (twice) on the "10 favorite symphonies" thread, and mentioned by Mango on the "post-1950 masterworks" thread. So, to help commemorate the week of the 40th anniversary of the Hollybush Summit between Kosygin & Johnson [held just down the road from me in Glassboro, NJ; USA, heh, heh], perhaps we can discuss the unique mastery that is Shostakovich's final symphony
    The hardest knife ill us'd doth lose his edge. Shakespeare- Sonnet 95

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    What a great idea ! This masterpiece is music of the very greatest kind on all levels.

    I first heard Shostakovitch 15 (his last symphony) performed at the South Bank in London to a packed audience - the Royal Philnarmonic Orchestra - some 15 years ago. It can be compared to a survey of music over the centuries. It first introduces themes that are deliberately populist and childlike before moving in to deeper territory in the movements that follow, finally ending with an astonishing finale of mystical, tense, almost sacred hush over several minutes by the use of rythmic percussion and wonderful sustained strings. In my view it's the greatest symphony of the 20th century. What a work !! From a marvellous composer.

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    I remember,10 years ago, it was in Marburg, I was holding all of them in my hand, but...
    Is this the one that has vibraphone in it? that was nice..
    Last edited by tutto; Jun-20-2007 at 23:34. Reason: errorerror

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    Thanks, robert, for your heartfelt advocacy of this work. The piece went to the top of my re-audition list today. I prepped myself with some program notes beforehand. I found a parallel between my feelings on this very substantive symphony and Hanslick's comment expressing belated support for Brahms' Symphony #4, wherein he said something like "its charms do not unfold themselves in a democratic manner." The charms of Shostakovich's 15th don't unfold in a democratic manner, either.
    Interesting- your mention of the concluding rhythms of the final movement. They reminded me of subjective period Ginastera. I look forward to another spin soon.

    And (concerning my other motive in starting this thread), I'll quote from a story mentioned by the most-quoted person in history- "...I have done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room."
    The hardest knife ill us'd doth lose his edge. Shakespeare- Sonnet 95

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    Written in just over a month, that symphony seems (to me anyway) to be calling for people to listen in its 2 opening movements, quoting (mischievously) such hackneyed music as Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ Overture. A sort of burlesque opening movement.

    I notice from the Wikipedia article on this work - (an online source that has so often been hugely helpful for ready references) -

    ‘Ever the humourist, Shostakovich delighted in placing allusions to the works of himself and other composers in his work, and the 15th (last) symphony is particularly rich in quotations. In addition to the cryptic references to his own music, it includes an outburst of Rossini's William Tell Overture in the first movement,. allusions to Mikhail Glinka and Gustav Mahler; and the use of Richard Wagner's ‘Fate’ leitmotif from The Ring Cycle.
    Most skilful is his manipulation of the famous grief leitmotif from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde at the end of the fourth movement. Beginning at rehearsal letter 143 in the first violin part, Wagner's famous motif of a rising minor sixth followed by a two note chromatic descent grows organically out of Shostakovich's own theme: a quirky and grotesque reference to the composer's own sense of suffering at his late stage of life, stated towards the close of this semi-autobiographical work.
    The composer said in conversation with his friend, Isaak Glikman: "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them". (Glikman p. 315).

    I got the distinct impression when first hearing it of ‘What does he want to call our attention to ‘ - a question that is finally answered with the 3rd and 4th movements and which, till then, plays with us. But that great slow movement, the 3rd and 4th movements - wow ! - they really are almost prophetic. Taking music back to quiet, highly personal, mystical things.

    I remember that the audience in London kept silent after the work was over for some seconds before they erupted in applause.

    With creative and sensitive people like Shostakovich there is no question that great music is still possible, even in these strange times. But summits are nice places to appreciate fresh air, for sure. That work is one in my view.

    Regards

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    I have to strongly disagree with you guys.

    First, let me say that I am a HUGE Shostakovich fan, and I love just about everything he wrote, with the exceptions of the 13th, 14th, and 15th symphonies.

    I think the 15th, is one of his weaker compostions, and even more suprising in that he knew that death was aproching, and that his time was drawing to a close.

    The "William Tell" overture insertion, sounds like a cheap trick, that was thrown in at the last minute, and gives the whole symphony a "burlesque" feel through out.

    In light of his really great symphonies, like the 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th, and 11th, the 15th sounds like it was just thrown together as some kind of sick joke.

    Maybe he wanted the 15th to be some kind "F___K You" to the Communist Party of the USSR.... a parting shot as he was about to leave this life. To be honest, we will never really know what he wanted to say within that symphony.

    But this much is clear (at least in my humble opinion), the 15th does not have the raw power and emotion of his symphonies like the 8th or the 10th. War and communist repression lead him to write some of the greatest works any composers has writen, but for some odd reason, as death stalked him in his final years, he just could not write the symphonies he used to write.

    Like I said, I love Shostakovich, but his 15th symphony leaves me cold.
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    To be honest, we will never really know what he wanted to say within that symphony.
    But Cato, we honestly do know exactly what he did say, or at least what the conductors and orchestras let us know--exactly as with any other piece of orchestral music. I wouldn't worry too much about it, though. The 15th is quite possibly his finest symphony--I certainly prefer it, myself--and will continue to be fine up to and beyond the day you're ready hear it.

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    What a pity, Cato, that you should put such great trust in the blatantly faked Shostakovitch 'memoirs' - documents that you believe show his deep hatred of the USSR. In point of fact Shostakovitch hated repression of all kinds. He was definitely NOT highly political. In fact, he did more for the USSR in terms of his music than most composers of the west did for the capitalist system.

    Which brings me to the 15th Symphony, a work that you describe as a '"F___K You" to the Communist Party of the USSR.... a parting shot as he was about to leave this life'.

    Well I've no wish to spark a musical 'Cold War' but I strongly suggest that Shostakovitch did more for ordinary people worldwide in terms of his musical output than virtually any musician of the 20th century. I strongly disagree with the view that his last symphonies are of a poorer standard than his earlier ones. Doesn't the history of music show the opposite (time and time again) that composers actually write better and better music as they mature ? You turn things on their head to argue in this way. Shostakovitch used burlesque type music in the 15th Symphony NOT as some 'anti-communist' statement (since none of the musical allusions that he uses have anything to do with communism or anti-communism) but as parodies of popular music. He draws us in, finally, to a sound world in the finale of that last symphony, the 15th, that is far, far removed from the opening movement. Quite how this work can be interpreted politically escapes me. The 'anti-communist' view of Shostakovitch is simply the product of western Cold War propaganda, nothing more. Ask Shostakovitch's wife, who openly condemns the 'Memoirs' as being complete nonsense. This interpretation of Shostakovtich is most unfair.


    Regards
    Last edited by robert newman; Jul-01-2007 at 01:03.

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    My clairvoyance not being what it should be, I can't say whether or not cato relied on Volkov's Testimony for his judgements. So that we stay focused on robert's message, there is a significant thread of respected, one could even say "mainstream" scholarship that regards Testimony as bogus in its whole cloth.
    Do we owe the (purported) Shosty line about Symphony 12 ("the material put up resistance") to Volkov? It's such a good sound-bite, I'd hate to think that it's of dubious authenticity!
    The summation of the "quotations" makes for an interesting thought-game. He quotes an Italian- Rossini, a German- Wagner (in the wake of World War II memories, that probably didn't go over too well with a few comrades)... and the Russian quotes came from-- himself! Peter Gammond had a nice line about Shostakovich: "He kept us, and 'them,' guessing, until the very end."

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    Let the evidence for and against be produced and the verdict will be straightorward. Shostakovitch wrote literally dozens of pieces FOR the USSR. He wrote none against the USSR. Does that plain fact count ? Surely it DOES count.

    Secondly, is there, anywhere, in the entire body of Shostakovitch's writings anywhere that he attacks socialism ? No. There is not.

    Thirdly, can Cato (or anyone else) provide evidence that the 15th Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovitch (a symphony written by one of the greatest composers who ever lived) was intended to be a "F___K You" to the Communist Party of the USSR.... a parting shot as he was about to leave this life'. NO, neither Cato nor anyone else can do so. So where, exactly, do Cato and others get these ideas from ? Surely, from the 'Memoirs' of Shostakovitch - a published document which is in fact a blatant fake and on which the falsehoods within it have been proved over and over.

    It is true that the search for 'meaning' in music is a feature of music itself. But shall we now argue that Georg Gershiwn's music was, in fact, an anti-capitalist outburst ? Shall we say that the founding documents of the USA are communist, since they call for a 'government by the people and for the people' ?

    I rest my case. In the many cases where Shostakovitch refers to conflict in his music only a propagandist of the Cold War would interpret it as 'anti-Communist' or 'anti-capitalist'. The fakery of the 'Memoirs' is yet another example of Cold War propaganda.

    Rgds

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    I highly respect you guys, and your opinions, and you make some good points. However, I would like clear some things up.

    First, no, I do not take Solomon Volkov's words as "the gospel truth". Yes, I have read his "Testimony" and the newer book, "Shostakovich and Stalin". They are interesting works, with a certain point of view.

    However, I have also read Elizabeth Wilson's "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered", as well as a few other Bios, some writen by Soviet writers in the late 70's and 80's. Now, one or two books does not the truth make, however, if you take the totality of books and articles writen about him and his life, at no point, can you come to believe that he was anything by a passive anti-communist, which one could almost say decribes the whole population of the USSR from 1917 to 1991.

    Why did he only join the communist party late in life? Was that really a free choosing?

    Second, yes, most composers get better with age and experence, and music is a matter of taste, but I am just not moved by the 15th symphony, (or the 13th and 14th) as I am by his middle to late works like the 5th and 11th, or the 8th and the 10th.

    Lastly, can you really listen to something like the 5th or 10th symphony, and not believe that Shostakovich hated his communist masters?

    Is it really "cold-war propaganda" to say that? And is it really "unfair"? To who? Shostakovich? Or the communists who had their boots on the back of his neck?

    Let me quote Maxim Gorky in 1917, who directed this at Lenin and his band of communist thugs....

    "Murder and violence are the arguments of despotism. I cannot find harsh enough words to reproach those who try to prove something with bullets, bayonets, or a fist in the face." Maxim Gorky, 1917
    Last edited by cato; Jul-01-2007 at 05:44.
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    Mr. Robert Newman, I respectfully disagree with you and I wish to ask you two questions.

    First, if YOU were Shostakovich, composing during the years, 1926 to 1975.... would YOU (if you were so inclined) write ANYTHING against the USSR?

    Second, would YOU ever publish ANYTHING against socialism, say between 1926 to 1975?

    That is the weakness of your view.... in a police state, if you value your life, your job, and your family, then you keep your mouth shut, and "go along, to get along". Shostakovich kept quiet, because to do otherwise, was like signing your own death warrent.

    And as for writing music "for the USSR", let me ask you this..... if the state is your only employer, who else would buy your music? Were there private music companies in the Soviet Union? No, the state, staffed and ran by the communist party, was the "only game in town". Was he going to sell his works to music firms in the West? No, the communist party would never have let him get away with that. It's not in the spirt of socialism to sell your work on an open market.

    Again, you have your view, I have mine, and history will have to judge.
    Last edited by cato; Jul-01-2007 at 05:42.
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    Cato, you are right that we must agree to disagree on this one. I admire the music of Dimitri Shostakovitch as being the work of one of the greatest composers of musical history. To interpret his music as anti-socialist is in my view one reason why his final, greatest symphonies do not yet have such a great value to you. I believe Shostakovitch and every great composer deserves to be appreciated without political bias. A man is judged solely by his works. In this sense I can love Wagner, JS Bach, Zelenka, Schubert and all the great composers without seeing them through capitalist or socialist spectacles. They were of course the creators of works which transcend political discussion. The suggestion that we, in the 21st century, can hear Shostakovitch's 'attack' on socialism in his own creations begs the question of whether anyone in the USSR could do so ? I cannot agree that such things are to be found in his works.

    But I respect your view. Sincerely. Hasn't history already judged ? And, if not, we owe it to Shostakovitch to hear him more.

    (p.s. The Cleveland Orchestra are great).
    Last edited by robert newman; Jul-01-2007 at 08:56.

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    One wonders from time to time what Shostakovich's music really sounds like. That is, what do those pitches, those harmonies, those rhythms really sound like, all on their own, without any biography (spurious or not), without any politics (dissident or not), attached to them?

    My natural way of listening does not include biography or philosophy, but with Shostakovich, it's hard to avoid hearing things about him and then hearing those things in the music. And when I was a kid, I could hear, or thought I was hearing, all sorts of Soviet things in it. In these post-Memoirs days, we're taught to hear those Soviet things as heavily ironic. When I was a kid, we took 'em straight. The point is the same--extra-musical values are assigned to melodies, harmonies, and rhythms and then Hey Presto! those melodies et cetera are found to have extra-musical meanings! (It would never work in a magic show, would it. "First I put the rabbit in the hat. Then I wave my wand and say the magic words. Then I pull... yes! I pull the rabbit out of the hat!!")

    I once read an analysis of the 'Symphony' movement of Prokofiev's Cantata that claimed 1) that it was a perfect example of sonata-allegro form and 2) that it portrays, in detail, a particular battle. But if it's a textbook sonata-allegro (and it is), then its portrayal of a battle must be entirely fortuitous. Either that or almost any sonata-allegro can be said to be portraying a battle, and not just any battle, but THAT battle. Which is absurd, perhaps even patently so.

    Better, I think, to stick with themes and development and recapitulation and the like and leave the battles to the soldiers. And the biographers.

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    I think I know what the problem is here.

    You guys are just looking at Shostakovich's music, strictly from a musical point of view, and Robert Newman from the point of view that Shostakovich being an anti-communist is just "cold-way propaganda."

    I take a different view, because I look at books, music, and many other things through the lens of history, and the society in which each artist/author lived.

    It would have been immpossable for Tolstoy to have writen his greatest works, without him living in 19th century Russia, under a Tsar, and having seen serfdom up close and personal. (He was a rich landowner, who's family had owned many serfs, and he felt guilty about it.)

    Tolstoy, and his great works, were a product of his society, of his time, of his experence.

    If Tolstoy were living in 21st century America, he would probably be a stock broker, or the midlevel manger of some big chain reatail store.

    It is the same with Shostakovich. You CAN NOT seperate the man from his time, and from his society.

    He lived his life in a Police State, he composed his greatest works, knowing full well, that any devation from the "party line" was like signing your own death warrent.

    How many of his friends and fellow artists were murdered by communists?

    How many were sent to death camps like Koyma?

    Can you really seriously say that he composed his music in a vacum?
    That he wasn't touched by all that was happening all around him?

    I'm sorry, but I do not believe that music, or any art is created in a vacum. And I have a hard time believing that Shostakovich did not burn with rage and hate, as he watched the bodies plie up all around him. The dead were not just his neighbors, they were his friends, and they were put to death and imprisoned by communists. He could not compose freely because of communists..... how could he not be anti-communist to some degree?

    Again, we have to agree to disagree.

    Respectfully.
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