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Friday, January 10, 2014

What we see from here cannot be heard from there

Next month I will conduct the 5th Symphony of the Soviet composer Shostakovich, a unique and fascinating work which constituted somewhat of a "return" to the Soviet
popularity that had been challenged following his 4th Symphony. Like many of his contemporaries, Shostakovich used music with dual purposes in mind: subtly criticizing the government on the one hand, while wholly placating the audience and the Party on the other. Many artists have tried and occasionally even succeeded in treading the fine line between these contrasting goals, but have not ever dared to cross it.

I would like to address two fascinating measures in the symphony's third movement in order to elucidate something of that same subtle message that Shostakovich may have intended to convey to us. When I say "us", I am of course referring to all of us in the free world of 2013, and not simply Shostakovich’s compatriots in the 1930s.

The symphony's third movement is written in F-sharp minor (3 sharps). In this movement,  Shostakovich's centers around this tonality, although there are only few moments of "traditional" harmonic motion. And then in measure 68, something astonishing is revealed.

The strings play a clear, closed chord – B-minor (fourth interval in F-sharp minor), and the harp plays an arpeggio (a technique in which the notes of a chord are played consecutively rather than simultaneously). And here Shostakovich creates an intriguing departure: the listener hears a B-minor chord on the strings and a B-minor arpeggio on the harp – complete match, without even one audible dissonance. Yet reading these measures reveals something astonishing: while the strings are playing a B-minor chord, the harp is playing these notes: G-flat, C-flat, D-natural, G-flat, none of which actually exist in the B-minor scale (they actually belong to C-flat minor – like a mirror of B-minor). More simply stated, even though the music that is being played is entirely harmonious (two B-minor chords), the written music on the page is entirely dissonant – B-minor and C-flat minor. There is therefore a dramatic difference between what can be seen on the page and what is heard. What is heard by the listener as an unremarkable, harmonious moment is in fact a powerful, dissonant moment – but only on the paper! Isn’t this incredible?

I would like to clarify that there is no musical reason for these differences in notation. The harp music could have been written differently, conforming to the F-sharp minor scale, without any adverse effect. It was Shostakovich who deliberately created this aforementioned stratification that hides within it a wonderful secret:

The composer is using musical notation not only as a means of translating the music into a readable language, but also as part of his overall artistic creation. This is a colossal innovation. The actual written score, even without being played, is in and of itself a broad artistic entity. The second wonderful aspect is the composer's ability to "deceive" the listener, who does not realize that the sound he hears in fact "looks" completely different.

Shostakovich is taking advantage of the fact that the played music is a translation of the written music and, like in any translation, some things cannot be translated from one language to another. He is in essence creating two works – one for the musician who reads it, and another for the listener. This may seem like something minute, but imagine the situation – musicians onstage in Soviet Russia are playing a composition which is received with hearty applause by the audience and the Party, yet they (the musicians, or maybe even the harpist alone) know that, at least in measure 68 of the third movement, reality is not what it seems to be. I find this both fascinating and romantic; it excites me to think of this measure as an internal rebellion, small as it is, against violence and tyranny. Two measures within a complete symphony, not even half a minute of music, contain within them an entire universe. Two entities which seem equal and sound the same and it seems like they have the same function (B minor and C flat Minor) are actually completely different from each other. Are we all equal or not?

Let's return to our famous B-minor chord. We have said that the strings are playing B-minor while the harp is playing a kind of mirror in the C-flat minor scale, with one small difference. D-natural exists in the B-minor scale but not in C-flat minor (in which he would have had to write E-double flat) which causes us to think that Shostakovich left one note – D, which essentially connects the two worlds: that which is both heard seen. "Who" is that D?
Surely it is none other than the composer himself – D is the first letter of his first name (the use of his name as music notes is not rare in Shostakovich's music) , and indeed the entire work is written in D-major. Shostakovich leaves this D as the connecting thread, the individual who lives between two worlds – the phony external world and the genuine internal one. This fact also paints the symphony's entirely D-major conclusion in a different light. That same D-major, which can seem like a sort of great triumphant finale, in fact represents a bitter loss. Who is the winner? By definition, if someone wins, someone else must lose. The D, which is hidden between two scales in the third movement, is presented in the forth movement as a type of victory march, but only outwardly. Shostakovich also helps us, instructing that we should perform that conclusion relatively slowly and almost without any accents – at a tempo of 94 for a quarter note, so that the same victory march will not sound like such, but rather like a great, powerful moment with a future that is yet uncertain. The symphony's conclusion, just like the two wonderful measures in the third movement, leaves us with many unanswered questions.

The musical motifs Shostakovich uses in this symphony were ones he had previously developed in his Pushkin Songs, which included Pushkin's poem, "Rebirth":

An artist-barbarian with his lazy brush
Blackens the painting of a genius
And senselessly he covers it with
His own illegitimate drawing.

But with the passing years, the alien colors
Fall off like threadbare scales;
The creation of the genius emerges
Before us in its former beauty

Thus vanish the illusions
From my tormented soul
And in it appear visions
Of original and innocent times.

This poem speaks of and precisely describes those two measures in the symphony's third movement. Pay attention to the first stanza. The artist with his lazy brush is blackening a painting which already exists! This is the marvelous image of an artist that paints his work over the painting of another genius. In doing so, he is perhaps destroying the original, but on the other hand, he is thereby also giving his own painting additional depth of meaning. He has created a type of "past" for his painting. This is exactly like the harp's arpeggio, which paints over the chord of the strings, thereby essentially broadening the significance of that simple chord. The second stanza reveals another wonderful thing: as time goes on, the alien colors fall away (from the original painting) and gradually the genius' work emerges, being revealed to us in all its beauty. Is this a description of Shostakovich's reality, or perhaps his prophecy? Continuing on to the third stanza, now the storyteller himself is revealed to us, saying, "thus vanish the illusions from my tormented soul, and in it appear visions of original and innocent times." The storyteller, or perhaps the artist, makes peace with his destiny and admits that the genius from the past is helping him to continue to live the past and not develop illusions about the future. There is a sort of vow here, that if we, as people, try to conceal the truth, it will always find its way back to the surface. And this is perhaps the most important message of the 5th Symphony.

What was seen in the 1930s as a triumphant finale and as a "Party" symphony will become, with the passing of time, a symphony which also tells about the lost destinies and internal struggles of people who suffered immensely under the Soviet regime. The truth of Shostakovich (the genius) will emerge, and in essence will destroy the symphony (the artist), so that the hidden message will be openly exposed. Do remember, that during all this years Shostakovich has never left Russia, a fact that unifies even more the art with the reality.