Tuesday, June 09, 2015


Shostakovich, a musical genius fighting for beauty as well as survival


The first thing to regret about this recording is that the lyrics, or libretto, are not provided and the internet can provide an English version of “The execution of Stepan Razin” and a bilingual version of “The song of the Forests.” But I was just plainly unable to find the lyrics of “The sun shines over our motherland.” And since they are not provided by Paavo Järvi himself how can we know they are the original words, lyrics, libretto since it is well known that since they were ideologically very close to Stalin they have been very often maybe systematically, rewritten in the west. And that is a crime against humanity, against human culture. We have the right to have the works in the exact form they were created and first performed except if the composer himself changed the work, which gives us a choice. But that is not the case. I guess the next move will be to expurgate the anti-Indian films by and with John Wayne, not to say racist towards the Indians, that should be corrected and made politically correct.

We are speaking of human rights, aren’t we? And any one politically minded bureaucrat, even musical bureaucrat has the right to impose a rewriting of a musical work because he or she considers it is not politically correct. So many words have to be banned forever from the unconscious criminal mind of these bureaucrats, in fact from our passive minds under the ever-remembering surveillance of these bureaucrats.

“The execution of Stepan Razin” is a marvelous musical work. The bass is a miracle of depth and somberness and it rightly and righteously is the voice of the revolutionary or anarchistic young man who kills supporters of the Czar. This bass wants to be the revolutionary hero par excellence the way the 19th century tenor of Wagner and Verdi was supposed to be the revolutionary voice of the modern western world. Who would dream of Siegfried as a deep Russian bass, or any hero of Verdi’s operas? No one of course. The heroic tenor was best, just as in Handel’s times the hero was a castrato or countertenor to use a modern “name.” What Stepan Razin says is not that surprising. When you want to make a revolution you have to break many eggs. At least that was the vision of the time, and still is in some Islamist camps or some guerrilla warfare underground struggle in Colombia or some, less and less, countries in the underdeveloped world.

The bass though is slightly grandiloquent and the contrast with the choruses of the people watching the execution is striking and the music then is there to amplify the pedagogical sacrifice of the revolutionary in order to make the people realize where the truth is. Including the soft, refrained music and singing that are supposed to emphasize the thinking, the pondering, the mind raking search of this audience who came to enjoy a good show and are confronted to a good pre-mortem sermon that requires them to climb up to some historical responsibility in supporting and embracing the victim, the martyr.

And that has to lead to a miracle, like Jesus resuscitating three days after his crucifixion. It is called by the bells ringing three times and then a fourth time some instant later. And again later on and on. The Bass then sings the head standing up all by itself and preaching, predicating, prognosticating the end of the Czar and the victory of the revolution. The head is resurrected into a political and fore- and farseeing prediction. The future is there at the door, except that in reality the future is the present and the new world is Stalin himself. The prediction becomes political allegiance.

“The Sun shines over the Motherland” starts as some rustic scene, soft, sweet, gentle. A boys’ choir is enough to give purity and an easy going tone that is then amplified by adult choirs that literally engulf the boys into a tide of power, optimism and faith. There cannot be any doubt in this in a way deliriously optimistic and servile work dedicated to the 19th congress of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1952 with an ailing if not dying Stalin and with a 20th congress in the near future that will turn the page but unluckily will not turn the chapter and certainly not turn from the whole book to another volume. So Shostakovich can only make some martial music that sings the future which looks very much like the present forever when it is on the point of falling. I am afraid so many political movements have their official musicians and they at times commit great works, brilliant songs that look for some unheard chords and enthusiastic harmony. It is not really the case here. Let’s sing together, raise our glasses and drink to the eternal truth and life of Stalin. You should listen to some of the French revolutionary works and you might find the same inspiration. The Marseillaise for example and its rivers of blood. In other words it is a relief when it comes to its own end, because all the great saviors always come to their end one day, and that is a good thing indeed. There is little difference between a Te Deum and such an Ave Tovarich!

“The song of the Forests” is another story and it starts with chords we remember from Stravinsky. But that might be a coincidence. We have to understand this is not pure propaganda. It starts deeply rooted in the Second World War and the several tens of millions of people who were killed on the Russian side. If we understand what it means to see something like 10 or 15% of the population of a country killed in five years by a crazy war, a barbaric war we can understand that we are here in a ritual that makes people, all survivors, commune in the sadness and the pain of the recollection of this period. We think of Walt Whitman and his “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” and his dirge about Lincoln’s assassination. And we could find other cases.

The second movement wants to be enthusiastic and to lead the people into reconstructing, developing the nation. Women are necessary because they are the life givers and they bring life to the country. Singing the trees, the birches, and their growth from the war-wasted land into some forest, some life-endowed and life-oriented work because we seem to forget in our western complacency that nothing can be achieved without work. Maybe a composer should not be a teacher of ethics and a foreman of work parties. Yet the third movement is more dramatic because it tries to remember the past, the suffering of the nation, and here the bass is the voice of that abyss, of that maelstrom, of that hell of a past that can never be forgotten. I must say in 1949 it was impossible to imagine the Russians forgetting that WW2 and all the other wars before like WW1 and the invasion by western powers and Japan after WW1. No one would say that Victor Hugo was a bigot when he wrote his novel “Ninety-Three” dedicated to the revolutionary wars of 1793, and the Terror and the blood bath, and so many other dark episodes of the French Revolution. Shostakovich is justified in his recollection of this horrible period and I cannot see how some could require Shostakovich to reject Stalin, the Victorious leader, in 1949. In France after all de Gaulle was even called back to power in 1958. Military glory survives everything, alas.

The fourth movement singing the action of young people, pioneers, planting the forests, reconstructing the country is nearly innocent and pure, clear for sure. The trumpet is brilliantly used as an entertaining sound that is nearly naïve and it leads to some fast and practically diabolical sarabande as if the young were the flames of the fire that was burning in the heart of all Russians. If there was a mistake it was on the side of politicians who wanted to force history instead of encouraging the energy or energies coming from people themselves. But Shostakovich was right. There was no future, no reconstruction without enthusiastic commitment.

The fifth movement is bizarre. On this CD it is dedicated to the memory of Stalingrad and in the libretto I got from the Grant Park Music Festival it is dedicated to Young Communists. So I hardly can believe the two versions can be wider apart. The tone of the music though in this recording is a dirge, some kind of optimistic and sound dirge singing the glory of some people from the past. There is some sadness and contained pain and the tenor at this moment seems to be singing that inward meditation of the Russian people. The words I have sing the force of the river Volga and that was the old name of Stalingrad. So the version of the libretto I have must have been rewritten to erase the name of Stalin. The CD seems to go back to the original version.

The sixth movement takes us to the future in some at first rustic and then more urban or suburban march, some cavalcade towards tomorrows that are necessarily singing. No surprise that the nation is depicted as a new garden of Eden, but not created as such by some supernatural being but grown and taken care of by the people themselves. Let’s have the Garden of Eden but let’s get rid of any mention of the religious myth behind.  

Then we can close this peace with a simple song of Glory to the nation, to Lenin and to Lenin’s party. Once again in the libretto I have the name of Stalin seems to be erased. At this moment the work becomes slightly grandiloquent and the return of the bass singing history and the future of the world in communism is nothing but some predicative conviction (oh! The ugly word that has two meanings!) that human beings are consciously making history. Many are thinking that and yet it is totally wrong. Human beings are one element in that historical trajectory and not necessarily the good one or the better one. Human beings have such a taste for blood and domination!

Such music has alas aged and has probably been swallowed up by some good intentions cast in realistic if not opportunistic considerations about the world the way it is and things the way they are.


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