Life in Two Worlds
Music from Russia by Alexander Scriabin und Dmitri Shostakovich
Between virtuoso and composer: Alexander Scriabin
Alexander Scriabin, trained at the Moscow Conservatory under Anton Arensky, Sergei Taneyev and Vasily Safonov, was active in two spheres all his life, as a pianist and composer. The surprising thing about Scriabin’s artistic “double life” is the fact that he composed only one solo concerto for “his” instrument, the piano. Scriabin’s Piano Concerto was premiered in Odessa in 1897 with the composer himself as soloist. The work met with little approval, however, neither from the public nor his colleagues. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov criticized the poor quality of the orchestral writing and even suggested to Scriabin’s publisher that he have it revised before publication. Scriabin defended his orchestration in several letters, once with the excuse of “neuralgia”– as a result, he saw “everything in the gloomiest colours” – another time defiant: “To orchestrate a concerto, you don’t have to have written several symphonies as preliminary exercises,” he wrote in May of 1897. Scriabin later increasingly distanced himself from his composition. He performed the three-movement early work reluctantly, and after a time he liked to categorize it as “merely the prelude to the planned Mysterium” (Sigfried Schibli), the immense Gesamtkunstwerk to which he devoted his final creative years. Nevertheless, it would accompany him conspicuously once again: when Scriabin undertook a tour along the Volga with conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1910 to introduce his works to a wider audience, the F sharp minor Concerto was on the programme several times.
Can instrumental music tell a story?
It is a long-disputed question whether instrumental music can be narrative. Are notes able to “say” something? Since the early modern period of music history there have been works which make this claim. The music depicts a situation, brief episodes or even entire dramas – sometimes more, sometimes less clearly – from the battaglia, a piece descriptive of battle, to the symphonic poem. But how concrete is this approach? Can details be depicted successfully using compositional means? Or are feelings expressed instead? How well does the audience understand the story that is “told” in the music (and not in the programme book)? If we look at works by a composer such as Dmitri Shostakovich, it is obvious that at least a certain narrative urge is perceptible in his symphonies. Of his fifteen symphonies, six bear a title that refers to an actual historical event, with or without the support of texts set to music. In his Second, Third, Seventh, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Symphonies Shostakovich “tells” stories.
The “whisper of history” from Dmitri Shostakovich’s perspective
Shostakovich’s aesthetic (and political) standpoint is particularly relevant in all these questions about narrativity, precisely because he refers to contemporary historical events in his symphonic works. During the Stalinist era, he was one of the most prominent artists of the Soviet Union. In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was so sharply criticized in a review in the newspaper Pravda (“Muddle Instead of Music”) that it was tantamount to a public condemnation – especially since it was presumed that Stalin himself was the author of the article. The attacks on the composer did not let up even after the Second World War, although along with these persistently threatening voices others were also heard during the 1950s. Particularly after Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich received numerous international and – even more important for his immediate situation– national awards and was also active on several politico-cultural committees.
The works from these years tellingly reflect the complicated situation in which Shostakovich found himself. The catastrophe of the Second World War was also a turning point for him that demanded immediate aesthetic consequences. At the same time, Shostakovich increasingly harboured doubts about (distorted) Soviet ideals, without abandoning his fundamental conviction, however, that it was possible to compose music that was accessible to a proletarian audience in the interests of communication and understanding. Consequently, he continued to write Soviet celebratory music (operettas, songs, arrangements of folk songs and songs of the masses, film music and other works). At the same time, he worked on a reformulation of the two musical genres which were most deeply rooted in a “bourgeois” musical tradition: string quartet and symphony. Especially the latter was, on the one hand, suspect under Soviet doctrine because of its Western bourgeois tradition but, on the other, welcome, since it provided a format that could present and celebrate Soviet revolutionary subject matter on a large scale – for the most part, reminiscent of popular songs of the masses and revolutionary songs.
Shostakovich developed precisely these ideas in his Eleventh Symphony. The historical events of the Revolutionary Year 1905 are addressed in large symphonic form, supported by programmatic movement titles and a series of well-known, popular songs written during the time of the uprising and afterwards. The specific event which Shostakovich alludes to in the Symphony is the so-called “Bloody Sunday”. In January 1905 workers in St Petersburg had called for a demonstration to persuade the tsar to provide humane working conditions and popular representation. The military stopped the demonstrators by force as they marched to the Winter Palace. On Russia’s inexorable path from tsarist to Soviet identity, the events of January 1905 played a central role as a place of remembrance, and in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony this is reflected in the programmatic movement titles and the underlying song material (though treated strictly instrumentally) and thus “narrated” musically.
The first movement (Palace Square) begins with a spiritual song of supplication, then introduces two songs (the prisoners’ song “Listen!” and “The Night is Dark”), which describe the people’s fear of the tsar’s power. In the second movement (The Ninth of January) Shostakovich uses two themes which are taken from the repertoire of revolutionary songs and culminate in an onomatopoeically depicted execution scene. Eternal Memory is the title of the third movement, which offers a glimpse of the future and focuses on remembrance with a series of variations on a socialist funeral march. In the finale, Tocsin, several themes from proletarian revolutionary songs and reminiscences of the central second movement are compiled, so that the memory of the events of 1905 and the evocation of this memory in the present are combined here with an exhortation to not give up the struggle for freedom from tyranny. The remarkable thing about Shostakovich’s musical reflection on the history of the year 1905 is the fact that the actual incidents are already “recounted” in the first two movements; the third and fourth movements extend chronologically beyond the time of the historical event and place special emphasis on remembrance of it.