Friday, September 25, 2009

Happy Shostakovich Day 2K9

It seemed to you that he is "frail, fragile, withdrawn, an infinitely direct, pure child." That is so. But if it were only so, then great art (as with him) would never be obtained. He is exactly what you say he is, plus something else -- he is hard, acid, extremely intelligent, strong perhaps, despotic and not altogether good-natured (although cerebrally good-natured).

That is the combination in which he must be seen. And then it may be possible to understand his art to some degree.

In him, there are great contradictions. In him, one quality obliterates the other. It is conflict in the highest degree. It is almost a catastrophe.
- Mikhail Zoshchenko, describing Dmitri Shostakovich to a friend in 1941 (as quoted in Shostakovich: A Life by Laurel E. Fay)

That character sketch always reminds me of Shostakovich's 4th symphony, the last of his works in his early, more Soviet-modernist style -- a supersaturated, high-contrast collage of the comic, tragic, and grotesque, elements which Shostakovich blended with increasing thoroughness in his later works. Here's a good clip of the first several minutes of the 4th, performed by Valery Gergiev and the Unattributed YouTube Bootleg Orchestra. On this topic it's also worth mentioning Gavriil Popov's Symphony No. 1, which, Alex Ross notes in The Rest Is Noise, Shostakovich baldly raided for his 4th's large-scale structure and tone.

Anyway, many happy returns of the Shostakovich Day; may all your contradictory qualities obliterate each other. Kyle and I will be marking the 103rd anniversary of the composer's birth by going camping at the coast this weekend. Unless in order to mark an occasion you actually have to have it in mind when you make your plans.


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