Over Thinking?

Most of the blogs so far have centered on understanding orchestral music by listening for a kind of musical narrative. By extension, this means that there has to be an element of intellectualization (hence the image of Rodin’s The Thinker.) But isn’t art supposed to be a sensory experience, I hear you ask? Sure it is. However, the more you know about something, the broader your contextual framework, the deeper your emotional experience, and the greater your enjoyment. Below is a prime example.

Towards the end of World War II, the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was commissioned by the Stalinist government to write a grand symphony. The piece was intended to celebrate the victory of the Russian army over the Nazis on the Eastern Front. This was going to be Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, and in classical music a Ninth Symphony is particularly auspicious, with a tradition dating back to Beethoven’s glorious Ode to Joy. So the hopes of all were very high. Shostakovich himself wrote that the symphony was going to be a large-scale composition for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, ‘about the greatness of the Russian people.’

The first time I ever heard this symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic was visiting Sydney and I paid $250 (!) to attend the concert, conducted by the eminent Russian maestro, Valery Gergiev. I was colossally disappointed. Rather than a huge dramatic 20th century symphony, it turns out that the piece is composed for a comparatively small orchestra, and that the music is innocuous to the point of being slightly banal; nothing grand about it at all! At intermission, I overheard an equally discontented audience member remark, ‘It would be nice if the piece had actually said something.’ My thoughts exactly.

A couple of years later I started to study the piece to conduct it myself. Whenever I sit down to learn a new work, I begin by doing some research (when was it composed, why was it composed, what was its significance to the composer, what did other musicians at the time think of it, how has history assessed it since, etc.) So, I discovered that after Shostakovich had made all these lofty and ambitious declarations, he just couldn’t go through with it. ‘Nothing will change’ he said. Defeating the Nazis would not put an end to his own people’s suffering; they still had to survive in constant fear of the vicious and malevolent Stalinist regime. People were still going to disappear in the middle of the night, never to return. So how could Shostakovich write a bombastic glorification of this same government? He couldn’t. So, he wrote an ‘anti-Ninth’; a piece so deliberately trite and vapid that it says nothing at all. (The exception is the fourth movement, where a piteous lone bassoon sings a lament, like a wordless requiem, in the face of rancorous barking brass. But this quickly slips into a derisive and sardonic march.) The point is, it aggrandizes no-one.

The authorities were as disappointed as I was that first time. It was not remotely the self-congratulatory bit of pomp they had been expecting. And after a year or so they banned the piece from performance. They were slow to realize it, but it was a huge slap in the face.

Whenever I hear the piece now (and I love it!) I feel a great, satisfying sense of ‘Fuck You!’ from Shostakovich to his oppressors. I feel vindicated and empowered. I revel in art’s power to speak when the message is forbidden. And I only feel this way because I came to understand, from an intellectual perspective, what was going on in this music. 

Kirsten Hicks