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September 8th, 2016

Discovering Shostakovitch

I was 17, and me and mom were in her car fleeing westward to California and the half of my family tree I’d never seen, and never known. I won’t go into the details of the family tensions at that moment, just that they were huge and mom was making a heroic effort to keep them away from me. She felt it was time for me to get to know my father. And in truth, she still loved him very much. All I knew was I was born in California, and it had called to me my entire life. I ached to be there. Now, hopefully I would finally walk its ground and see the people who were the other half of my bloodline.

I’d had my driver’s license by then. I was driving, mom was resting in the front seat beside me, it was night and we were on the interstate driving through Ohio, into the darkness beyond the headlights, driving to whatever was ahead. I had the radio on. In those days the radio was all you had to keep you company on the highway. The radio stations faded in and then faded out as the miles passed. I had a classical music station tuned in. This began playing.

Somehow, it just captured my emotional state just then. It was as if the composer wrote it just for me, just for that moment, driving from one world I knew, into an unknown one. Fleeing the relentless iron grip of one, but into what?

As soon as I could I began searching for this music. All I heard from the radio was “…Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra…” Eventually I learned the name of the composer. He was a Russian…Dmitri Shostakovitch. And it was his first symphony, as performed by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra. I later learned he composed it when he himself was a teenager. I have always imagined listening to it, that this was his statement on coming of age, and finding himself in a country where the artist’s only duty was to the State. Somehow, raised in a rigidly authoritarian faith that was nothing like the state imposed atheism of the Soviets, and yet everything like it, I could relate. The Man was a soul sucking bastard whichever side of the iron curtain you were on.

This is intense, amazing music. It aches. It burns. It is sarcastic, ironic, broken hearted and proud and defiant. Shostakovitch became my musical companion through the rest of my adolescence and young adulthood. He went on to compose 15 symphonies, all of them masterpieces of 20th century music. And his music never lost that bitter, ironic, defiant bite. His 8th symphony, composed during the siege of Leningrad is the most perfect expression of the soul crushing inhumanity of war I have ever listened to. (Get the version by Kyril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic.) Later, I discovered Vaughan-Williams and Rachmaninoff. They speak to my heart in a different, more settled and romantic way. But some days I dig into my collection of Shostakovitch because nobody expresses this feeling of bitter, laughing resolve better, and especially the piece he composed while a teenager, in Joseph Stalin’s Russia.

Note: only the Russian conductors seem to really understand Shostakovitch, and especially this piece.

 

dmitri_shostakovich-sm

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