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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: From Jewish Folk Poetry / Suite on Words by Michelangelo / Romances, Opp. 21, 46 and 62 (Russian Romances) (Jurowski)
For a composer of vocal music in a totalitarian state such as the former Soviet Union, the very choice of poet was itself a declaration of commitment which—quite apart from the content—was linked to the life of the writer and above all his ideological evaluation by the Party. In his song-cycles, Shostakovich, a virtuoso in eloquent rhetoric behind the facade of beating the drum for Communism, made masterly use of the symbolic resonances of names such as Pushkin who hated the Tsars, or the Futurist Alexander Blok, or Shakespeare’s timeless critique of power, or the Jewish culture that was so brutally suppressed after the War. Countless intellectuals, including many of Shostakovich’s friends and revolutionary comrades-in-arms, had been victims of the Stalinist purges in the Thirties. For others, such as the poetess, Marina Tsvetayeva (1892–1941), the only escape from social ostracism and psychological pressure by the authorities was suicide. Marina, who in her youth had sympathized with Russian Futurism, had returned to her homeland after 17 years in exile just two years before deciding to put an end to her life. But her lament, “It is high time I gave back my ticket to the creator”, was, in 1939, made in the context not only of the outbreak of war, but also of the violence and bigotry of a country with which she could no longer identify. It was not until 1961 that the period of political “thaw” in the Soviet Union permitted the publication of some of her poems. And it is characteristic that Shostakovich, already a sick man, discovered Marina Tsvetayeva’s poetry and used it in his late song-cycles which are imbued with thoughts of death and ideological reckonings. In his dacha in Zhukova in the summer of 1973, after an arduous journey through the USA, he wrote the Six Romances opus 143a which he later orchestrated at the end of 1973 and beginning of 1974.
The fact that by orchestrating his songs Shostakovich aimed to do more than introduce these intimate works into the public concert repertoire, is also clear from the orchestrated version of Six Romances on Verses by English Poets opus 62 for bass, which were written and published as opus 140 in 1971, almost thirty years after their original composition. As in a distant evocation of Old English Consort Music, the richly divided lower strings form the golden background onto which flute, bassoon and horns, and occasionally also timpani, bells and celeste paint dabs of lyrical or harsh colouring. Such skilful reduction of forces allows Shostakovich to create a new “spatial” level of interpretation for his texts without weakening their sketch-like epigrammatic qualities through dazzling orchestral virtuosity. The “Great Patriotic War” had once more united artists and the state against a mutual enemy. However, after 1945 Stalin tightened the ideological noose again and ordered his aesthetic right-hand man, Andrei Zhdanov, to vilify any artist who did not toe the Party line. Again Shostakovich fell silent, withdrew into private life, reflected, read, and came across a collection of Yiddish songs in Russian translation. These gave him the idea for a cycle of songs for three voices with piano. Having been forced to witness how Stalin had systematically marginalized the Jewish intelligentsia, Shostakovich identified with the fate of the “rootless cosmopolitans”, as the Jews were called in Soviet terminology. And although it was clear to him that State-manipulated anti-Semitism would rule out any performance in the short term, in August 1948 he composed the first eight songs of the cycle, From Jewish Folk-Poetry, and stored them away. They are a kind of portrait in sound of life and customs in the austerity of the “Shtetl”. The verse- and cradle-songs are pervaded by a simple, sincere folk style, and the miniature dialogues by a dance-like vitality where Shostakovich often resorts to Jewish-sounding modes and a plaintive, oriental tonality. Only in the last three songs, which he added in October 1948, does he combine this moving musical language with the unconvincingly positive and musically less impressive vision of a happy life, free of care. After Stalin’s revenge on revolutionary artistic utopian ideas Shostakovich retreated more and more into the realm of “wordless” symphonic writing and chamber music and began to encode his music, using a tonal language laden with rhetoric and containing a mixture of expressionistic figures, “surrealistic” alienating effects and confrontation of traditions which revealed more of the radical changes and catastrophic events of the time to an attentive contemporary than all the operas about the lives of Soviet heroes. Shostakovich only turned to critical expression in the last fifteen years of his life, when incurable myelitis struck, bringing premonitions of death, embitterment but also a feeling of inner superiority over the political power-house. As a result his most important vocal cycles were written either before his political chastisement in 1936 or after 1960 when he combined contemporary comment with personal experience of resignation and sorrow in works like the 13th and 14th Symphonies or the Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti op.145a. Exterior influences were then a welcome alibi for private pronouncements. The year 1975 would see the 500th birthday of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1563), the Tuscan master painter, architect, sculptor and poet and Shostakovich took the opportunity in the summer of 1974 of selecting a Russian translation of eight sonnets and a madrigal (no 4), an epigram (no.9) and an epitaph (no.11) by the Italian and composing them into a Suite for Bass and Piano, setting them for bass and orchestra later that year. “His poetic art is gripping thanks to its deep philosophical concept, an unusual humanism and over-whelming verdicts about creation and love,” the composer commented on his choice from Michelangelo’s poetry, charting as it does with its delicate and religious undertones and, above all, its criticism of political un-scrupulousness, the artist’s path between life and death, between creation and power. The Three Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin op. 46a are also the result of a commemoration day, namely the 100th anniversary of the death of the poet in a duel on February 10, 1837. When in December 1936 Shostakovich set four texts by Pushkin for bass and piano the shock of the official condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district was still fresh in his memory. In particular, the first Pushkin romance, entitled Rebirth, seems like a belligerent answer to Stalin’s brutal “cleaning” of the cultural elite at that time. The title Romances is shared with the setting of six Japanese poems op. 21 for tenor and orchestra, which Shostakovich dedicated to his first wife Nina Varsar, a student of natural sciences from an intellectual Leningrad family. The emotional aberrations of the young composer, who was always scrupulous in his personal relationships until his marriage in May 1932, are reflected in the Japanese love poems.
(Translation: Janet & Michael Berridge)
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