Music and Tyranny: The Rest is Silence

C J Schuler
Antoni Wit 300x198 Music and Tyranny: The Rest is Silence

(Getty Images)

At last Friday’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, the Warsaw Philharmonic, brilliantly conducted by Antoni Wit, presented a powerful programme of Polish and Russian music written under the shadow of Nazism and Stalinism: Lutosławski’s propulsive Concerto for Orchestra, Shostakovich’s lyrical Second Piano Concerto, glitteringly played by Alexander Melnikov, and Panufnik’s Tragic Overture (a dark and powerful response to the occupation of Poland) and eerie Lullaby.

The concert culminated in Shostakovich’s odd and often neglected Symphony No. 6 in B minor, a work I had never heard in performance before and which left me wondering what the composer was trying to say – or perhaps, what he was trying not to say. Odd, because of its strange, seemingly lop-sided construction: the intense, Mahlerian opening movement is marked largo – very slow – and lasts more than twice as long as the two fast movements that follow put together, an edgy, skittish scherzo and upbeat music-hall finale that do nothing to resolve the despairing impasse of the first movement, but simply bypass it.

The symphony was written in 1938 and premiered in 1939 – the darkest period of Stalin’s purges, which came terrifyingly close to the composer himself. In 1937, Marshal Tukhachevsky, Shostakovich’s early patron, was executed after a show trial. The same year, the composer’s mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofia Varzar, his brother-in-law Vsevolod Frederiks and uncle Maxim Kostrikin were arrested, and his sister Maria exiled. In 1939 his friend the theatre director Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and forced to confess to charges of espionage. He was executed the following year.

The poet Mandelstam said of that time, “We were capable of coming to work with a smile on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a relative arrested. It was essential to smile. If you didn’t, it meant that you were afraid or unhappy. Nobody could afford to admit this.”

Shostakovich himself had been excoriated for the “formalism” of his Fourth Symphony and his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and had narrowly restored his reputation with his Fifth Symphony, which followed the Beethovenian model of a spiritual battle crowned by victory, and earned the queasy subtitle, “a Soviet composer’s reply to justified criticism”. (Ironically, its conformity to Soviet artistic demands has made it one of his most popular works in the West.)

One critic, bemused by the unconventional structure of the Sixth, described the work as “headless”, because it appeared to lack the sonata-form allegro that begins the traditional symphony, starting instead with a slow movement. But Shostakovich’s largo is not the traditional hymn- or song-like “slow movement”, but a slow first movement. The musicologist David Fanning has described it as a “deformed” sonata movement that fails to achieve that form fully not because it is an artistic failure but because it is an artistic depiction of failure.

There are two notable precedents for a symphony that begins with a slow movement, and they are both by composers Shostakovich revered, and from whom he derived strategies by which to circumvent the constraints of Soviet artistic policy: Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (the Pathétique) and Mahler’s Ninth. Both of these are four-movement symphonies; and both invert the traditional order of movements – fast, slow, moderate, fast – so that it becomes slow, moderate, fast, slow.

If these were indeed his models (the Tchaikovsky, interestingly, is in the same key, B minor, while the Mahler is in the relative major, D), what Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony lacks is not a fast opening movement, but a slow concluding one. Given the demands of “socialist realist” orthodoxy for an optimistic ending, that would have been unthinkable; indeed, it might have been understood as an elegy for the victims of the purges. So the symphony ends with a riotous galop – and the rest is silence.

Prom 55 can be heard on the BBC iPlayer until Friday 30 August 2013

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  • Michael Ernest Corby

    what had been played was not what he had written. The amazed orchestra burst into spontaneous applause.Yes. Shostakovich, as a first rate composer, always knew what he was doing.

    There is a story that at the rehearsal of a new symphony in a very loud passage a seemingly obscure wind instrument payed a passage differently. At the end the composer was asked to comment, he did drawing attention very politletly that

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