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Chapter Thirty of Keeping Score in America: The Shostakovich 15th Symphony: The Eternally Bitter Wanderings of Dimitri Shostakovich
By Michael Moriarty
Why do I love, adore, wallow in the pain of Dimitri Shostakovich?!
Not only his grotesquely self-evident loneliness but the bitterly sharp and pitilessly invasive edges of his satire?
This particular symphony, #15, begins with such cries from a classic Russian Yurodivy, self-appointed clown, driven to increasingly Pagliacci-esque expressions in order to summarize both his bottomless rage and disillusionment!
Please don’t be deceived by the opening’s friendly flute! Rather like the spider and the fly, we’re led into a divinely painful trap.
Shostakovich is my Musical Master, my Maestro!
He slipped his own creative freedom by his enslaving Communist master, Joseph Stalin, and that monster’s threats. This link and Michael Tilson Thomas will tell you the essence of a nightmare which Shostakovich faced.
The second movement of the composer’s final symphony, the 15th?!
A slowly building but seething, subconscious rage?!
All mirrored for a second time in the final, fourth movement.
The subsequent despairs, following the tempests and/or bitter clowning, are heartbreaking.
It is the 1970’s in the Soviet Union.
Life in the 60’s under the relatively benign – relative to Joseph Stalin that is – but belligerently Communist Nikita Khrushchev, who died in the very same year this symphony was composed, 1971.
Seemingly dashed off, bitterly, angrily, contemptuously, and all in one month?!
Shostakovich knew he was dying and had one last symphony left in him.
You hear the Russian giant of music exclaiming, “Take that!” with every new note!!!!
A vengeful, “feel-my-pain-and-bitterness”, Moscow version of Parisian “J’accuse!”
Emoting vainly all over a Soviet world and a supposedly Free World that not only seemed not to care but a Russia that seemed intent upon humiliating him and his associates such as the Russian poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko.
“This music is exactly, precisely how I feel!!!” whispers the embittered creator.
The inner cacophony?!
It’s shaking fists?!?!
The 15th Symphony’s musical outline:
Or its bitter satire, particularly the allegretto of the Third Movement?!
It’s as if he’s laughing at the entire meaning of the Soviet Union, not to mention the ineptitude of the Free World to deal with Communist expansion and tyranny which, the Marxist President Barack Obama, is now reaching its historical zenith.
Capitalism’s secret love affair with Totalitarianism!
“Hypocrites?!?! Take that! And that!! And That!!!”
His intent throughout every movement, except for the Third Movement, is to not let Beauty, yes, the Goddess of Beauty, deter him from his ugly job of letting the whole world know how he feels just before his death.
All, even minor glimpses of his old lyricism?!
Gone, destroyed or just limping through into a commitment to his own despair, his own inner dis-ease and human life’s seemingly eternal futility.
What’s so magnetic about it?
Its naked honesty!!!
No one in the history of music shared his or her agony on Earth with such transparency and mysteriously bottomless depth as did Dimitri Shostakovich.
There are brief but desperate looks back at his own prior creations over which he clearly weeps.
This is not merely the narcissism of a genius.
His last symphony is his own Requiem; and, to my mind, the Shostakovich 15th Symphony is emotionally and, in that respect, certainly a brief but formidable, albeit Communist, creative challenge to Mozart’s Requiem Mass.
Because of its still vibrant modernity, I find it as mesmerizing as the Requiem Mass.
It wasn’t commissioned as the Mozart Mass was. At this point and by this time in his career, Shostakovich had no one to please or to vent with but himself.
The exception I find in the Third Movement?
It doesn’t last for long. Soon, this Giant Yurodivy, Dimitri Shostakovich, is again telling the whole world to go f---k itself!
I increasingly understand how he felt.
The final movement?
A lament that grows increasingly without direction, the longing lament of a now Eternal Wanderer.
Perhaps I, as a composer, will pick up where he left off?
I’m too devotedly my own, singularly belligerent lover of Christ.
Therefore, no irrevocable bitterness.
Communist genius, however, like that of Shostakovich’s contemporary, Sergei Prokofiev and East Berlin’s Bertolt Brecht?!
Alban Berg, Shostakovich and Harold Clurman are the three major subjects of my next three movement work, my Symphony # 2.
This editorial and those to follow are preparing me for a thrilling pilgrimage through my hopefully 10 to 15 symphonic series, a body of work intended for, as they say, “serious consideration”.
No, I cannot possibly match the profoundly moving agonies of Shostakovich.
With the price so high, who would want to?!
Dimitri Shostakovich had no other choice but to compose what his soul and not what either Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev ordered him to compose.
That is why, of all the leading composers of the time, from Brahms to Tchaikovsky to Wagner to Prokofiev to Stravinsky?!
The music of Dimitri Shostakovich will carry the most weight.
The size of his genius plus his personal struggle to survive under tyranny while sending out the equivalent of coded, symphonic messages to the world?!
Not since Beethoven’s private and not-so-risky elimination of Napoleon’s name from the Eroica Symphony, have personal integrity and music been so inextricably interwoven or publically displayed as with all 15 Symphonies of Dimitri Shostakovich.
The unrelentingly disillusioned composer behind the slightly tinted glasses:
Why does Shostakovich so fascinate me?
His bitterly cunning honesty.
In short, his beleaguered integrity.
Honesty being at such a premium these days, the naked truth of his music makes Dimitri Shostakovich, despite his seeming concessions to Stalin, almost a saint.
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.