Would the Real Shostakovich Please Stand Up

By | October 22, 2013 at 5:11 am | 4 comments | LSO On Tour, New York October 2013 | Tags: , , , , ,

The 15th symphony is a strange piece. When you consider that it was written in 1971, there are huge passages that seem unaware of other developments in music, or maybe he just ignored them. When you consider the restrictions that Shostakovich endured during his lifetime in terms of travel and exposure to the outside world, it’s hardly surprising that it is a strange piece. Look at it another way though, and it’s entirely expected. After he was denounced in Pravda for writing ‘muddle instead of music’, he withdrew his fourth symphony which we played yesterday in New York, a work which marked a change in his music. His more conservative 5th with the subtitle, “An artist’s creative response to just criticism,” was not as forward looking. Unable to express what he wanted for fear of his life, his output was compromised – how exactly, we’ll never know.

Taking the applause after Shos 15. Photo by Cindy Chin.

He visited New York City in 1949 as part of the delegation from the Soviet Union appearing at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace. It wasn’t a happy visit. Described in the press as pro Communist propaganda, pickets and protests camped outside the Waldorf Hotel and Shostakovich was in the position of being a popular composer in the US but also a symbol of the communist agenda. It’s no wonder his music at times cannot be taken at face value.

Shostakovitch speaking at the peace conference in New York

The 15th is perhaps the most elusive. It does stand apart from the trajectory classical music compositions were taking, but does seem to make sense at the end of Shostakovich’s symphonic work. Look at the opening of the piece. For me, as a flute player, in terms of your adrenalin assisted heart rate, it’s right up there with the Prelude a l’apres-midi. When getting ready to play the Debussy, an atmosphere of calm is needed as the conductor walks onstage. Angst and paranoia create breathlessness, which is the last thing you need for unrolling that famous, long opening phrase. You could argue that angst, paranoia and breathlessness are the exact qualities required for the opening of the 15th symphony. However, like much of his music, nothing is ever what it seems, multiple meanings and layers of codes conspire to veil the true meaning…or do they? The ticking of the percussion, brilliantly played by the LSO percussionists tonight and the chiming of a glockenspiel and celesta are supposedly a toy shop at night. The man himself said so. At face value they certainly do sound like that, but what of the flute melody? I remember being asked by one conductor to make it sound more circus-like. I don’t like the circus, especially the clowns, so perhaps that was a good way of making it sound how I think it should. Played in one way, the ‘innocent’ sounding flute over the top of the clicks and whirs can sound cheerful and playful if it wasn’t for the pivoting between A and A flat. It is unsettling. If it’s a smiling clown, there are tears behind the make up.

Protesters Outside the Waldorf Astoria

Another description of this music seems to me more apt. Shostakovich had been suffering from illness which was to end his life. Having spent much time in hospital, dosed up on medicine, the sounds we hear in the symphony can take on a paranoid edge. The sounds of surgical instruments reverberating off the walls, the noise of nurses shoes clicking around the wards, the ever present threat of the state – they sound to me much more threatening than the toyshop explanation, especially as the music develops. When William Tell makes a surprise appearance, even Shostakovich didn’t explain why except for saying

“I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them”

Fair enough. But why the fate motif from Wagner? Why the quotations from the 4th symphony? Do they mean something? They must do, it’s Shostakovich, its got mean something right? Are we supposed to laugh when the trumpets play William Tell? Is it because we see the Lone Ranger, or because he’s poking fun at music history? Possibly at us? I’m really not sure, but the effect is rather disorientating and as always, nothing is ever what it seems.

In the second movement, Tim Hugh scorched the stage with an extraordinary cello solo and through much of the movement we are on more familiar territory, the slow moving solo wind lines, the duets in 5ths and 4ths and the full throttle outbursts from the whole ensemble. This could have been written 30 years earlier – but only by Shostakovich. The strings sing a pianissimo hymn, but it’s a hymn with no good news, only bleak reflection later echoed by the brass at the opening of the fourth movement. At last though, an allegretto melody played by the strings which seems to find some solution to the restlessness, until it’s disturbed by pungent, muted brass chords and then the enigmatic ending. The ticking of the the shop or the clock of time, or the hospital wards or something else finishes the symphony underscored by a very long, quiet string chord and then something quite odd happens, at least I think it is. After all this conspiracy, multiple meanings, quotations the piece ends with a single chime. After all that’s gone before, it’s quite matter of fact. Time’s up, I’ve said my piece, that’s it.

Bernard doesn’t hang around on the final chord. He brings the orchestra to a halt, opens his hands and gestures at the score with a look on his face that says, I’ve conducted this piece many, many times, and I’m still not sure what he’s on about. It’s the same look that Colin used to have at the end of Sibelius 4, one of the bleakest symphonies I’ve played. I have to say that the chime at the end of the Shostakovich reminds me of those old Colgate adverts where the good looking woman or man would smile at the end and their teeth would dazzle accompanied by a similar sound. It almost sounds to me like Shostakovich seeded the symphony with clues and puzzles which were ultimately unsolvable. He watches the conductor, orchestra, audience and critics try to find meaning and then in the very last bar, on his way out of the symphonic repertoire, he turns, looks over his shoulder and winks. The jokes on you. His music is so much a product of his time and the situation he found himself in; it’s instantly recognisable but at the same time impossible to pin down. But that’s what makes music an art of infinite possibilities. There is no right and wrong, but if Bernard and Colin can’t decipher it, what hope have I?

Haitink painted by Norman Perryman

When he came to London for the British premiere of the symphony, Shostakovich had a free evening and so decided to go to the theatre. He went to see Jesus Christ Superstar – not what you’d expect I guess? After the performance he commented on how much he’d enjoyed it and expressed an interest in the new instruments he’d heard. I believe he enjoyed it so much he went again the next night. Imagine if he’d managed to write a 16th before he died with those new fangled electric guitars…It would probably have gone down a storm in New York now I come to think about it.

It’s always a momentous trip coming to New York. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know we’ve been coming here for 101 years now (not all of us in person of course, except Sue Mallet). I hope it’s not too long before we’re back. Off to bed now, we leave in 6 hours…

Lincoln Center at night


  1. Craig Zeichner (1 year ago)

    I was at both LSO performances in NY and they were two of the greatest orchestral concerts in memory. All this in a week when I was fortunate to hear four Shostakovich symphonies inside of two weeks — Mariinsky Orchestra (#8) and NY Philharmonic(# 11). Great piece and the tidbit about Shostakovich taking in Jesus Christ Superstar is priceless.

  2. Chuck Klaus (1 year ago)

    Although the piece can be viewed by some as elusive, it seems fairly apparent what Shostakovich may have had in mind. There is throughout the work a sense of time remembered, of time slipping away. The piece does have echoes of the Circus, to be sure, but also echoes of the concert hall, the opera and the cinema and just about every place where D.S. had the chance to hand his artistic hat. It is a strange summing up by a man who had not evidently come to terms with what his life had been, but there is no desperation to set things right, only a painful resignation, as the clock continues to tick down to the end.

    • Gareth Davies (1 year ago)

      I think your first sentence says it all. “It seems fairly apparent what Shostakovitch may have had in mind.”

      You don’t seem so sure yourself although I tend to agree with your interpretation.

  3. Carl Wikeley (1 year ago)

    “Are we meant to laugh” – yes, very much so. Shostakovich himself is said to have had a wide grin on his face when the audience laughed at its premier.

    However – “It must mean something” – of course one can always draw conclusions from the music. Perhaps it is DS’s intention to disorientate, and attempting to find the ‘truth’ is the wrong way to go about this Symphony?

    Having said that, have you noticed the unnerving parallels between this and his 12th – both start with a bell toll?


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