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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

May 16, 2017

Shostakovich: Memories and Secrets

Angel sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” wrote the Renaissance artist and poet Michelangelo Buonarroti. The same statement could serve as a motto for musicians and scholars performing and studying the works of Dmitri Shostakovich, a man whose inner life was encased within a protective barrier of ambiguity. Coming of age in a time of revolution and suspicion in his native Russia, Shostakovich endured what New Yorker writer Alex Ross described as “...the most warped and tragic phase in twentieth-century music: the total politicizing of the art by totalitarian means.” Secrets lie at the heart of Shostakovich’s music. He kept no diary. Someone was always watching and listening. His contemporary and compatriot, Sergei Prokofiev, once observed from his hotel room: “We compare notes in whispers. We do not believe the rumours current in émigré circles to the effect that the beds have microphones fixed under them; but we do notice a locked door between our room and the next through which someone could easily eavesdrop if they wanted.” Suffering from habitual manipulation at the hands of the Soviet government, Shostakovich did what he needed to do in order to survive. Fear drove him to protect himself, his family, and friends. A misstep meant performances of his music could be banned, and public verbal lashings would appear in newspapers and other publications. Disappearances, labor camps, and executions were also very present and terrifying realities.  

Dmitri Shostakovich (Courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek)

It is natural in the course of exploring a biography to want to understand precisely what a person felt, particularly if the subject existed under complex circumstances. Those who want to know Shostakovich end up wondering about the true nature of his relationship to the regime. Why did he eventually join the Communist Party? Had he come to terms with their censorship? Was he actually conveying emotions of dissent through his music, and if so, to what extent? The details of Shostakovich’s true opinions have largely remained shrouded in mystery (vagueness was a method of self-protection). That Shostakovich lived with a dilemma is certain. He craved freedom of expression in an environment that made it impossible, and the only alternative was to leave his homeland. He chose to remain.

During the final decade of Shostakovich’s life he suffered from an onslaught of severe health issues, including broken bones, limited use of his right hand, heart attack, and lung cancer. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the composer’s final works dwell on the topic of death and memory. He knew the end was coming. (The movements of his String Quartet No. 15, for example, carry subtitles like Elegy and Funeral March.) One of the last pieces he would write was the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti for bass vocal soloist and piano accompaniment on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s birth. In many ways, Michelangelo lived the life Shostakovich could only dream of; a life of creative freedom, prestige, and fame. Out of the over three hundred poems Michelangelo wrote, as an alternative mode of expression apart from his visual art, Shostakovich selected ten. Through this poetry that expresses the ups and downs of a creative life we may get a rare glimpse directly at Shostakovich’s emotions regarding his own career at its conclusion. The titles Shostakovich assigned are telling, Truth, Love, Night, Death, and Immortality, as are provocative phrases like, “the more I exert myself, the less you like me.” 

Manuscript of one of Michelangelo's more than 300 poems

In March of 1975, Shostakovich attended a recording session for the orchestrated version of the Suite. His son, Maxim, conducted the Soviet Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. Five months later, he was gone. 

By Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot


Manfred Honeck leads the San Francisco Symphony in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti with baritone Matthias Goerne, May 25-27 at Davies Symphony Hall. 415-864-6000

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