Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Episodes

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01Turning Inward20150914
01Turning Inward20150914
01Turning Inward20150914

How Shostakovich withdrew from public art to the inward sphere of the quartet.

01Turning Inward20150914
01Turning Inward20150914
01Turning Inward20150914

This week, Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets. Today, the composer withdraws from the risky world of public art to the inward sphere of the quartet.

Shostakovich came relatively late to the string quartet; he wrote his first in the year following the 5th Symphony, which had marked his rehabilitation after the furore whipped up by Stalin over the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District - "Muddle instead of music", screamed Pravda - and the suppression of his angular, epically-proportioned 4th Symphony. A bad review from the Soviet state's official mouthpiece wasn't just an inconvenience; if you were considered guilty of 'formalism', or of not reflecting 'the life of the people', you could be whisked away in the dead of night and never seen again - or not for a long time, anyway. So after what must have been a truly terrifying period for Shostakovich, it's not particularly surprising, even once the 5th Symphony had been pronounced an official success, that he should have decided to take a holiday from the limelight and immerse himself in the rarified world of the string quartet - beyond the interest and under the radar of Soviet officialdom. Shostakovich's 1st String Quartet is a charming if relatively unambitious work, described by the composer as "joyful, merry, lyrical" and even "springlike", though a vein of melancholy winds its way through the first three movements. The story goes that Shostakovich's Piano Quintet started life as a second string quartet - with the composer adding a piano part when he realized that touring with it would allow him to travel!

02Music For The Bottom Drawer20150915

Music for two pianos, a work in praise of Stalin and a quartet so subversive it was banned

Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets. Today, music for two pianos; music in praise of Stalin; and a quartet so subversive it had to be banned.

Shostakovich's father died young, so at 16, to help make ends meet, the aspiring composer had to take a job as a cinema pianist. As it turned out, this thankless drudgery stood him in good stead for his later work writing music for film; he was prolific, producing almost 40 scores in as many years. His music for The Fall of Berlin, a lavishly-funded Mosfilm epic, is by turns evocative and highly dramatic. If only the film - a self-styled 'artistic documentary' that rewrites the history of the Second World War with Stalin as the central character - lived up to the quality of the music! The same year he made that musical contribution to Stalin's burgeoning cult of personality, he also composed one of his most intensely beautiful string quartets, the 4th - Haydnesque in its clarity of expression and suffused with the spirit of Jewish folk music. Shostakovich's musical timing was faultless but his political timing was not so good. At that time the régime was engaged in a crackdown on the Jews - or "unpatriotic, rootless cosmopolitans", as Pravda called them - and the head of the Music Division of the Committee for Artistic Affairs determined that the new quartet should be consigned for the time being to the composer's bottom drawer, where it remained till after the Glorious Leader's death. Around the time of the 4th Quartet's eventual première, Shostakovich wrote his Concertino for two pianos, for his 16-year-old son Maxim and a classmate to play. It's a simple but brilliantly effective little piece whose mock-serious opening soon gives way to unbounded levity.

03The Unwilling Communist20150916
03The Unwilling Communist20150916
03The Unwilling Communist20150916

Donald Macleod explores Shostakovich's String Quartets No 7 and 8.

03The Unwilling Communist20150916

03The Unwilling Communist20150916
03The Unwilling Communist20150916

Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets - today, the 7th quartet, in memory of his wife Nina; and the 8th, in memory of himself.

After a long courtship, Dmitri and Nina Shostakovich had married in secret, in the face of opposition from both their mothers. It was a stormy relationship that quickly became an 'open' marriage, but it survived more than 20 years till Nina's sudden and unexpected death from cancer of the colon in December 1954. Shostakovich felt unequal to the task of bringing up two teenage children on his own, so he promptly set about finding a conjugal replacement. His first preference, Galina Ustvolskya, was a former composition student with whom he had become intimately involved; she turned him down. His second choice, a young woman called Margarita Kainova, accepted. Apparently the proposal was made by phone; perhaps nowadays he'd have sent a text. The marriage - which Shostakovich announced to his children after the event - failed within a few years. It probably didn't help that Margarita - who worked for the Soviet Youth Movement - appreciated neither Shostakovich's musical nor biological offspring. The year after the divorce, he wrote his ultra-concise, elliptical 7th String Quartet, to commemorate what would have been Nina's 50th birthday. Later the same year - 1960 - Shostakovich was staying in the spa town of Goerlitz, near Dresden, supposedly working on the score for a film by his friend Lev Arnshtam - Five Days, Five Nights. In the event, he made little headway with the film but was pitched headlong into a new quartet - his 8th - which he completed, in an extraordinarily concentrated burst of creative activity, in just three days. It's an explicitly autobiographical work that seems to have affected Shostakovich deeply. The tart filling in this quartet sandwich is his sardonic Satires, subtitled 'Pictures from the Past', to ensure that no-one could think the composer - who after years of resistance had finally, and with a colossal sense of self-disgust, joined the Communist Party - was intending to satirize the present state of Soviet society.

04Looking Death in the Face20150917

04Looking Death in the Face20150917

Donald Macleod discusses the composition of Shostakovich's unsettling String Quartet No 14

04Looking Death in the Face20150917

Donald Macleod discusses the composition of Shostakovich's unsettling String Quartet No 14

04Looking Death in the Face20150917

04Looking Death in the Face20150917

Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets. Today, the ailing composer's thoughts turn to death - in the 14th Symphony, the music for King Lear, and the 'downright strange' 13th Quartet.

In 1969, the muscular-wasting condition Shostakovich had been suffering from for a number of years was finally given a name: poliomyelitis. A stay in a Siberian clinic brought some relief, but from now till the end of his life, his time was increasingly punctuated by spells in hospital. It was during one of these spells that he composed his 14th Symphony, a song-cycle for soprano, baritone, strings and percussion on the subject of death - to underline the point, a senior party official, Pavel Apostolov, died during the première. The following year, Shostakovich wrote the music for Grigory Kosintsev's film of King Lear, material from which found its way into the 13th String Quartet - also completed during a hospital stay. It's a bleak, melancholy and unsettling work cast in a single, 20-minute arc, or as the composer described it to his colleagues in the Composers' Union, "a short, lyrical quartet with a joke middle" - the "joke middle" being a passage in which Shostakovich directs all but the first violin to strike the bellies of their instruments with the wood of their bows. What do these knocks signify? ... the irregular ticks of a malfunctioning clock? ... death knocking at the door? ... the final nailing-down of the coffin lid?...

04Looking Death in the Face20150917

Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets. Today, the ailing composer's thoughts turn to death - in the 14th Symphony, the music for King Lear, and the 'downright strange' 13th Quartet.

In 1969, the muscular-wasting condition Shostakovich had been suffering from for a number of years was finally given a name: poliomyelitis. A stay in a Siberian clinic brought some relief, but from now till the end of his life, his time was increasingly punctuated by spells in hospital. It was during one of these spells that he composed his 14th Symphony, a song-cycle for soprano, baritone, strings and percussion on the subject of death - to underline the point, a senior party official, Pavel Apostolov, died during the première. The following year, Shostakovich wrote the music for Grigory Kosintsev's film of King Lear, material from which found its way into the 13th String Quartet - also completed during a hospital stay. It's a bleak, melancholy and unsettling work cast in a single, 20-minute arc, or as the composer described it to his colleagues in the Composers' Union, "a short, lyrical quartet with a joke middle" - the "joke middle" being a passage in which Shostakovich directs all but the first violin to strike the bellies of their instruments with the wood of their bows. What do these knocks signify? ... the irregular ticks of a malfunctioning clock? ... death knocking at the door? ... the final nailing-down of the coffin lid?...

05The Two Shostakoviches20150918
05The Two Shostakoviches20150918

Donald Macleod focuses on Shostakovich's String Quartet No 15.

Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets. Donald Macleod views Shostakovich through the prism of his string quartets; his 15th expressed powerfully in music the dissidence he was incapable of expressing in his public life.

Since the official battering he had received for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich had been at pains to toe the party line. During the Stalin era this was understandable enough - it was a matter of sheer survival. But after Stalin's death there was, in relative terms, something of a thaw, and dissident voices began to be heard. Shostakovich's was emphatically not one of them - in fact he became more than ever the party loyalist, accepting all sorts of official posts and duties and even adding his name to an open letter attacking the nuclear physicist and civil-rights activist Andrei Sakharov. The only language in which Shostakovich was prepared to express dissidence was the elusive, ambiguous, indefinable language of music. So there grew up in Russia the notion of "the two Shostakoviches" - one daring and progressive, the other, frankly, a coward. Shostakovich subtitled the first movement of his 15th Symphony 'The Toyshop', but it quickly becomes clear that this creepy, eerie toyshop is no place for children. The profoundly melancholy 15th String Quartet - one of the composer's last major works - is a relentless procession of six Adagios, in which Shostakovich completes the journey to the interior he had begun with his 1st String Quartet nearly four decades earlier.