DPO to help audiences find hidden, treasonous meaning in major symphonic work
But consider what would happen if we did it on a national or even international scale, risked pissing off the powers that be, and by doing so put our lives in danger.
In one of the darkest years of Communism’s long and bloody history of political suppression, a twenties-something Russian pianist and composer did just that. He composed music that seemed to say one thing, but that many believed to have held a completely different – and treasonous – meaning. Long before the Beatles popularized the concept of the backward recording technique known as backmasking with their 1966 album Revolver and the single Rain, Dmitri Shostakovich created a monumental work with a hidden meaning that didn’t require a recording of it to be played backward to be heard.
The music itself was the hidden meaning.
It was 1936, and Stalin’s Soviet Russia was awash in –isms: Communism, Totalitarianism, Bolshevism. The State had forbidden composition of traditional music, except music of – or in the style of – Ludwig von Beethoven. That’s like saying “No more Kings of Leon or Eminem; it’s Bill Haley or nothing.”
Why? Because the Soviet leaders saw artistic standards as political, ideological tools. Suddenly artistic freedom disappeared: books were banned from publication, authors dropped off the face of the earth, theaters were shut down, and musical composers found Big Brother looking over their shoulders at every note they put on paper. It was the State’s way or the highway (often to a gulag or graveyard).
For Dmitri Shostakovich, the handwriting was on the wall. He had fallen from official favor far enough to see 1936 begin with a series of attacks by the Soviet Party newspaper Pravda, best characterized by an article entitled Muddle Instead of Music. He stopped the premiere of his in-your-face Fourth Symphony, a work doubtless to cause a late-night knock on his door by the KGB. 25 years would pass before the Fourth would see the light of day and be performed.
It became clear to Shostakovich: he had to write for his very life. And his get-out-of-jail-free card was his Symphony No. 5.
It saved his butt….literally.
The Soviet government loved it. It met all their stern requirements for conforming to the Party Line. Or did it? Musical scholars (and many a Russian man on the street) have always wondered if the music contains hidden meanings?”
In and of itself, it begs a conspiracy theory.
“His cat-and-mouse game with Soviet authorities makes him one of the most controversial composers,” Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Musical Director Neal Gittleman writes in his Classical Connections Program Notes. “Was Shostakovich a loyal communist or a closet dissident? Did his music reflect the politics of his era? Who do we believe when a composer’s words seem to say one thing and his music seems to say another? How does political interpretation affect musical interpretation?”
“The Fifth Symphony was a change for Shostakovich,” Gittleman notes. “It was less experimental than his earlier music, with soaring lyrical melodies, vigorous march tunes, and powerful emotions. But it was hardly the kind of bright, optimistic music that Stalin wanted. The music is by turns dark, angry, sarcastic, elegiac, and, in the end, defiant. When the Fifth was met with thunderous applause in both Leningrad and Moscow, there was nothing the authorities could do but declare victory and say that Shostakovich had learned his lesson.” The people got it; the party bosses didn’t have a clue.
But does it contain a secret massage? If so, what is it? Contempt for an oppressive, unfeeling government? Hopelessness? Censure? Can we, when we listen to it today, understand what Shostakovich intended it to mean when he wrote it?
There are clues. The markings used to indicate the type of expression he wanted given to the music aren’t much help to the conductor or musicians. All he wrote was “play expressively.” It points toward the conclusion that Shostakovich didn’t want anything on the paper that would provide insight into what he was thinking other than the notes themselves. Musical cloak-and-dagger, nez pas?
And he might have just started an artistic trend.
Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is a play based on Greek mythology first performed in Paris on February 6, 1944 during the Nazi occupation. It apes Shostakovich in that it is deliberately unclear with regard to Antigone’s rejection of the authority of Creon, the former a reference to the French Resistance and the latter to the Nazi occupation. The irony here? It was produced under, and with the blessing of, Nazi censorship! The French people in the audiences got that it was a deliberate slap in Hitler’s face; the Nazis didn’t!
Benjamin George writing in The Musical Times in 1994 believed that Maurice Ravel’s 1920 composition La Valse was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War. Its one-movement design plots the birth, decay, and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz. Concertgoers in occupied Paris in World War Two, however, heard the music as a chilling indictment of the greed, cruelty, and inhumanity of their Nazi captors. Again, the Nazis didn’t get it!
But you can.
On Friday evening September 23 at 8 pm in the Schuster Center, you can join Neal Gittleman and the DPO as they present Shostakovich and Stalin in the 2011-2012 Season premiere of the Demirjian Classical Connections Series. The DPO will perform Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and his Symphony No. 5, and Neal will explain how Shostakovich managed to create a work that sent different messages to two different audiences.
Without having to play it in reverse….