The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

shostakovich and britten

Dmitri Shostakovich (left) and Benjamin Britten in 1966

Last Friday evening Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic treated Liverpudlians to a preview of a concert that was to be repeated two nights later as part of The Rest is Noise festival, the series of concerts and events bringing to life Alex Ross’s survey of 20th-century music that has been running at London’s Southbank Centre throughout 2013.

The concert featured three pieces, all from the  early 1970s – Luciano Berio’s Four Versions of the Retreat from Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid, Benjamin Britten’s Suite from his opera Death in Venice, and Dimitri Shostakovich’s last Symphony, the Fifteenth.  Britten’s opera was first performed in June 1973, and the programme notes helpfully highlighted some musical landmarks of 1973 (including the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on 1 March) and provided a box headed, ‘1972 in context’. In that year, the context included such milestones as: British unemployment exceeding 1 million for the first time since the 1930s, the introduction of Access credit cards, and the UK joining the EEC.

The implication of this information was that the pieces we were hearing somehow reflected their time.  It’s possible, I suppose, though not in the sense of commenting directly on current political or social concerns in the way that Pink Floyd’s album set out to do.  A more likely way in which these works by Britten and Shostakovitch suggest their time might be found in the observation by Alex Ross that:

Both men seem almost to have been born with a feeling of being cornered.  Even in works of their teenage years, they appear to be experiencing spasms of existential dread.  They were grown men with the souls of gifted, frightened children.

The two composers had been firm friends since the mid-1960s, each living a marginalized existence within his own culture and wrestling with an acute personal dilemma.  For Britten, pacifist and homosexual who lived openly with Peter Pears his personal and professional partner, this was not his sexuality per se , but his longing for the company of underage males. For Shostakovitch, it was his precarious position in relation to Soviet cultural demands and a lifetime of denunciations by and personal accommodations with the Soviet communism that tormented him.  Ross remarks:

Britten’s psychological landscape, with its undulating contours of fear and guilt, its fault lines and crevasses, its wan redeeming light, made Shostakovitch feel at home.

1972 was the year in which Britten was composing the opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice; it was the year, too, in which Shostakovitch – then 66 years old and in constant pain from various illnesses that included heart trouble, lung cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease – finally made the journey to the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears had lived and worked from 1957.  In his book, Ross tells how Britten allowed his friend and fellow-composer to see the score of what was to be his final opera, Death in Venice, something that Britten usually kept utterly private.

Britten and Pears

Benjamin Britten (left) with tenor Peter Pears in 1946.

So, what of the music and the performances?  Each one of these three pieces was entirely new to me, but it was clear that the evening was another triumph for Vasily Petrenko as the Phil’s Chief Conductor, and there were excellent performances by the RLPO musicians, especially from those in command of the extensive battery of percussion and timpani ranged across the stage.  For each of these pieces require a lot of percussion (I realised that in programming a concert, making economical use of the soloists you have marshalled is as much a factor as thematic or musical considerations).  There were castanets and kettle drums the fore in the opening piece by Luciano Berio, written in 1975 but modelled on an 18th century work by Boccherini that depicts the Madrid city watch at midnight curfew hour, the music growing louder as the watch draws closer, then dying away as the parade passes (reminding me of ‘Saeta’, the processional piece from the Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain.

Percussion in the form of bells, vibraphone, glockenspiels, xylophones, gong and timpani – pervaded the score of the Britten piece, reflecting the powerful impact which hearing Balinese gamelan music had had on Britten a decade earlier.  The Suite from Death in Venice is accepted as being one of the most impassioned and poignant pieces of Britten’s career:

Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera (1971-73), is in many respects his most personal, even confessional. Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, it tells of Aschenbach, an internationally-celebrated writer of austere lifestyle, who has dedicated himself to the Apollonian pursuit of beauty but seems to have lost inspiration and the capacity for feeling. He takes a holiday in Venice, where he becomes fascinated and obsessed by a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio (a non-singing role, portrayed by a dancer), whom he observes from afar. Although he learns that a fatal epidemic is rife in the city he stays on, giving himself up to his long-suppressed Dionysiac impulses and dies of the disease, finally admitting to himself that he loves the boy. Aschenbach recognizes and confronts his hitherto latent homosexuality in terms of anguish and eventual decay, and the opera – deeply effective and moving – appears as Britten’s own most direct statement concerning his own sexuality. As Britten was having heart surgery by the time of the first performances in June 1973, he was unable to attend, and responsibility for final realization of the score devolved onto the conductor, Steuart Bedford.
– Philharmonic programme notes

The opera was Britten’s most public statement of his long-term relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who originally performed the demanding lead role.  Like the character of Aschenbach, Britten died in middle age – in December 1976 – from heart failure brought on by tertiary syphilis, according to Benjamin Britten: A life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea, who records that as Britten exhausted himself on research for Death In Venice in 1971, he said to his assistant: “First of all I’ve got to finish this one, then there’s a big work, then an opera, and then I’ll be ill.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Britten’s great friend Shostakovich also died in middle age, writing his final symphony in 1971 at the age of 65 following a heart attack. The work is generally interpreted as the composer’s reflection on his life and music, which had been repeatedly – sometimes oppressively – overshadowed by Soviet politics. There are quotations from his earlier symphonies and other works by Rossini, Mahler and Wagner, and great opportunities for soloists to shine  – from the trumpet quoting the William Tell overture in the first movement to a beautiful cello passage in the second movement (that reminded me how much I love Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto) and clarinet and violin solos in the third.

Shostakovich’s last symphony was composed in July 1971 at a composers’ rest home in Repino, 20 miles north-west of Leningrad, and first performed in Moscow on 8 January 1972. Shostakovich died of lung cancer on 9 August 1975.

We had heard music by two composers, each one ‘born with a feeling of being cornered’ and living a marginalized existence within his own culture.  If there are any parallels with Pink Floyd’s phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon, they lie in the album’s central theme that flowed from the band’s loss of founder member and lyricist Syd Barrett as his mental state deteriorated.  An extended meditation on conflict, greed, insanity and death, the album contains the song which might be considered the theme for the decades to come:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and your O.K.
Money it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviare, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team
Money get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off my stack.
Money it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the hi-fidelity first class travelling set
And I think I need a Lear jet
Money it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re
giving none away

And, finally, the album asks, who is sane, and who is really mad?

The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.

Rostropovich conducts Shostakovich Symphony No.15

Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music

Shostakovich’s 13th at the Phil: a monument for Babi Yar

Shostakovich’s 13th at the Phil: a monument for Babi Yar
Shostakovich and Yevtushenko
Shostakovich and Yevtushenko

On Thursday evening we went to the Phil to see Petrenko conduct an all-Russian programme that culminated with Shostakovich’s monumental and impassioned Thirteenth Symphony, a choral work – effectively a song-cycle – consisting of settings of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and opening with his poem written in protest at Soviet policy on the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in 1941.

When I was at university in the sixties, Yevtushenko was one of the poets of the moment, to be read alongside other student radical favourites of the time like Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell and Alan Ginsberg.  I remember I had a dual-language edition of Yevtushenko’s poems – the Russian on one side and the English translation on the facing page.

Einsatzkommando victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941
Einsatzkommando victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941

Yevtushenko wrote ‘Babi Yar’ in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar, a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, as a site of the mass murder of 33,000 Jews on September 29–30, 1941.  After the war, Soviet policy reflected both Stalin’s instinctive suspicion of Jews, and a rhetoric both of Russian nationalism and communist internationalism: the anti-fascist war had been fought bravely by Russians defending a communist state founded on the belief that all political divisions reflected class struggle.  The result was, as Tony Judt wrote in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:

For various reasons it had always suited the Soviet purpose to downplay the distinctively racist character of Nazi brutality: the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar was officially commemorated as the ‘murder of peaceful Soviet citizens’, just as the post-war memorial at Auschwitz confined itself to general references to ‘victims of fascism’. racism had no part in the Marxist lexicon; dead Jews were posthumously assimilated into the same local communities that had so disliked them when they were alive.

Reading Yevtushenko’s poem again for the first time in decades, I am less impressed than I was fifty-odd years ago.  Although I recognise the significance of the poet’s somewhat coded attack on Soviet policy, the poetry – however laudable its intent – now seems rather clunky, and the final invocation of the Internationale and the ‘true Russian’ grates.

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.

Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
Dreyfus.
The Philistine

is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.

Beset on every side.
Hounded,
spat on,
slandered.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace

stick their parasols into my face.

I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
“Beat the Yids. Save Russia!”
some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.

0 my Russian people!
I know
you
are international to the core.

But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.

I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these anti-Semites-
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
transparent
as a branch in April.

And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much –
tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.

They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking …

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.

Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning gray.

And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am
each old man
here shot dead.

I am
every child
here shot dead.

Nothing in me
shall ever forget!

The “Internationale,” let it
thunder
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.

For that reason
I am a true Russian!

In the 1950s, Shostakovich had composed works that had drawn on the intonations of Jewish folk music, and had privately expressed to friends his loathing of anti-Semitism. In the conversations with Solomon Volkov, published in Testimony, hemade these comments on the Babi Yar massacre and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union:

It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.

That’s why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.

Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, marked a brief opening for anti-Stalinist literature during the  Khrushchev period as Soviet leader.  By July 1962, Shostakovich had completed work on his ‘vocal-symphonic poem’, supplementing the opening ‘Babi Yar’ movement with four more, based on other poems by Yevtushenko that were critical of aspects of life in Soviet Russia.

In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross writes that:

The first movement, ‘Babi Yar’, is ostensibly a lament for Jewish suffering under the Nazis, but it also remembers life under Stalin. Yevtushenko devotes one section to a depiction of Anne Frank cowering with her family in the attic:  ‘Someone’s coming!’ ‘They’re breaking down the door!’ ‘No, it’s the ice breaking!’  Shostakovich responds with a series of dissonant, hammering chords, which, in their peculiar, hollowed-out voicing, suggest not only a murderous hand hammering at a door but also the terrified reactions of those waiting behind it.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko recites ‘Babi Yar’ with music from Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony

Shostakovich Symphony No. 13, ‘Babi Yar’: BBC Prom, Albert Hall, August 2006 (first movement)

The Phil was packed on Thursday evening: Vasily Petrenko has a dedicated and enthusiastic and this was the last event of his long-term project to conduct all Shostakovich’s symphonies, a labour that has extended over several seasons. The stage was packed with the large array of orchestral musicians, male voice choir and bass soloist that this piece requires.  Reviewing the performance by the RLPO for The Guardian, Tim Ashley wrote:

The Thirteenth is among the least ambiguous of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for male voice choir, bass soloist and a colossal orchestra, it rages overtly against Stalinism and demands we learn from history by refusing to revert to its extremes. The opening movement, drawing parallels between Nazi and Soviet antisemitism, is one of music’s great anti-racist statements, a thing of fury and terror, which Petrenko unleashed with tremendous force. Later he brought irony and sadness to bear on Shostakovich’s contemplation of the attempted suppression of satire, the dreariness of bread queues, and the nature of scientific and artistic responsibility.

Alexander Vinogradov was the aggressive yet sorrowing soloist. The men of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society sang with great fervour and intensity.

There were two additional pieces in the programme: Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, written in 1920 for an ensemble composed entirely of woodwind and brass instruments.The angular chordal blocks of that piece were in stark contrast to the second short work that made up the first half of the programme, Tchaikovsky’s romantic Serenade for Strings, composed entirely for strings.

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble