November 1, 2009

Keeping Score

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony has a wonderful series of videos called "Keeping Score." They're reminiscent of the musical lectures Leonard Bernstein used to give. I highly recommend them.

PBS featured one of them last night, "Dmitri Shostakovich's 5th Symphony: Music Born of Fear." Though his 5th symphony was written in 1937, I can't think of a more relevant composer in today's political climate than Dmitri Shostakovich, nor a more important piece than his 5th Symphony. It has always been one of my favorite works with its terrifying 1st movement, it's paradoxical Scherzo, the tragic 3rd movement, and the "triumphant" ending.

To summarize the thesis of Michael Tilson Thomas (along with many other musicologists), Shostakovich wrote this piece under great duress. At this time, Soviet propaganda police had declared that art's only purpose was to glorify Stalin and his regime. Should their work in any way be construed as criticism, it earned the artist/composer/ poet/author a one-way ticket to Siberia, if not torture followed by execution. Shostakovich found his name decried in a public newspaper, and having known the fates of many of his friends, collegues and family, including his own sister, he knew that his future (not just as a composer, but as a man) was uncertain at best. Symphony No. 5 was written in such a way as to help him regain favor with Soviet leaders. But what many hear when they listen to this Symphony underneath all the fanfare and patriotism is a hidden message of terror, anguish and recrimination.

During one part of the "Keeping Score" production, Michael Tilson Thomas sits at a table with several musicians in his orchestra who grew up in the Soviet Union, and experienced such suppression first-hand. They understood growing up that they could not speak freely, that what they thought and what they said were two different things. They reminded me of my very dear Chamber music teacher at the University of Utah, the late Mikhail Boguslavsky, "Mischa" to his students.

Mischa studied at the Moscow Conservatory during the Stalin years. He had so many stories about his life, but the one I remember most is the description of how he lost the eyesight in one of his eyes. On March 5, 1953, both the composer Prokofiev and Stalin died. Prokofiev's death was ignored. Stalin's called for a three-day mourning period, and Mischa was in an orchestra slated to play for the various ceremonies. He always said that Stalin was able to reach him, even from the grave, because though he had a serious eye infection at the time, he could not be excused, and his eye was left untreated for the duration of the funeral, resulting in its permanent blindness.

Whenever I hear Shostakovich's 5th symphony, I think about Mischa, and the price he paid for being born at such a time. Shostakovich's parents welcomed the 1917 Revolution, not knowing that they were being "rescued" from one form of tyranny only to be subjected to an even harsher form of government. When I listen to "Shosty 5," it reminds me how important it is not to take our own freedoms for granted.


Unknown said...

Wow! I feel so classy & cultured all of a sudden - we were watching that, too!!! And wow, yes - I learned SO much about him, and I had a lot of the same impressions about when he lived and when we're living right now... thank you for sharing your thoughts, and your invaluable association with such an amazing teacher!!!

Tawna said...

Wow. What a story. I'm really concerned that our freedom of speech is in jeopardy here in this country. Thanks for passing this along.

Judy said...

Thanks for sharing those great stories. We all need to be reminded often of what others have given. Tyranny takes many forms...