Music and Freedom
March 26, 2003 1:12 AM   Subscribe

Shostakovichiana. Documents and articles about one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, some of them focusing on the problems he encountered working under a totalitarian system. Some highlights :- 'Do not judge me too harshly': anti-Communism in Shostakovich's letters; 'You must remember!': Shostakovich's alleged 1937 interrogation; About Shostakovich's 1948 downfall. More related material can be found at the Music under Soviet Rule page.
There are a number of interesting sites dealing with music expression and censorship generally. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has a site on the music of the concentration camps - 'While popular songs dating from before the war remained attractive as escapist fare, the ghetto, camp, and partisan settings also gave rise to a repertoire of new works. ' Here's a Guardian article on the Blue Notes, who 'fought apartheid in South Africa with searing jazz'. Here's a page about the Drapchi 14, Tibetan nuns who 'recorded independence songs and messages to their families on a tape recorder' (and were subsequently punished). Finally, a page on records which were banned from BBC radio during the 1991 Gulf War (example :- 'Walk Like an Egyptian').
posted by plep (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This post was partly inspired by an issue of 'Index on Censorship' from a few years back which specifically dealt with music...

Here's A Brief History of Banned Music in the US.
posted by plep at 1:31 AM on March 26, 2003

That's really interesting. I love Shostakovich - and I always knew he had more backbone than that crowd-pleaser Prokofiev.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:39 AM on March 26, 2003

Shostakovich was a genius. His mastery of the craft meant even his most commercial or propagandic stuff was great, and his string quartets and other deeply personal works are sublime.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 1:43 AM on March 26, 2003

Some more :-
Alim was detained by the Taliban just for being a musician and is now living in the UK. BBC interview.
Taliban Killed the Radio Stars. Village Voice article on censorship under the Taliban, from 2001.
Songs Censored Due to Terrorist Actions.
'I've just come across a list of songs deemed "questionable" by Clear Channel Communications. They own about 1200 radio stations, and I believe they're asking them not to play any of these songs ... ' (Haven't had chance to check this list but seems like an interesting piece).
God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, of course.
posted by plep at 2:46 AM on March 26, 2003

Aaah, Shostakovich. One of my favorite composers. I hardly knew anything about him, though, until you posted this. Wonderful post, Plep. And I mean it.
posted by wanderingmind at 9:22 AM on March 26, 2003

As usual, great stuff from Plep. The music of the Holocaust goes much deeper than what seems to be here listed at (surpirsingly) the national Holocuat Museum. In addition to two operas composed and performed in "the model camp" there were jazz bands! Jazz was verbotten under Hitler but there was a fondness for it and thus it was played live for the Nazi officers. Further, at the camp (Terezin) there was this, available on CD
The extraordinary musical and cultural life of the Jewish concentration camp at Terezín in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia comes vividly to life in these 4 CDs. Hans Krása's classic children's opera Brundibar had a unique significance at Terezin, with an astonishing 54 performances.

Over 50 original compositions have been recovered from Terezíin, and the three other discs in this series contain outstanding songs and chamber music by some of the galaxy of musical talents, most of whom passed through the camp before ending their days in Auschwitz.
posted by Postroad at 9:30 AM on March 26, 2003

Thanks for that, Postroad.
I probably should have included it in the post (your comments reminded me), but Holocaust Music of the Ghettos and Camps is an interesting site about the role played by music among the people.
'Ghetto songs served three major purposes: documentation of ghetto life, a diversion from reality, and the upholding of tradition. The ghetto songs reveal the capacity for suffering and the elemental will to survive and the urge to create, to sing and even to laugh. The ghetto had its street singers, its coffee and teahouses. It had its beggars and madmen. One popular tune which was supposedly started by a beggar said, "Me hot zey in dr'erd, me vet zey iberlebn, me vet noch derlebn" ("To hell with them, we will survive them, we will yet survive.") Laughter became a necessity and a channel for the hatred of the enemy; it became the catalyst for expressions of anger and bitterness when the means of struggle were still not clearly defined ... '

Also, the website of the Life and Death Orchestra is worth a look :- here.
posted by plep at 9:46 AM on March 26, 2003

Thanks for the post, plep. I had been humming Shostakovich to myself a lot lately, because of the historical references to the Nazis attempted seige of Stalingrad, and how the current Iraq situation may echo it. One of the Shostakovich symphonies I used to listen to part of (the only work of his that I know intimately and still love from beginning to end is the 2nd Piano Concerto) had a long, long march that crescendos through about six or seven minutes, depicting the Nazis marching and marching into Russia and just wearing themselves out. What the hell symphony was this? Anybody? I thought it was the 11th, but the descriptions I can pull up don't seem to mention it.
posted by soyjoy at 10:23 AM on March 26, 2003

soyjoy - it's the seventh you're thinking of, the march is in the first movement, this work was famously smuggled out of leningrad to toscanini during the german invasion itself. it's even referred to by westerners as "the leningrad symphony" although a rather more intelligent name would be "st. petersburg symphony" given shosta's ideological sympathies.

but his best symphony is the fifth "reaction to just criticism" symphony, and i'm not the only one to think so - the thrilling first few bars form the backbone of a classic morrissey song dealing with criticism and fascism on a less grand scale.
posted by mitchel at 11:08 AM on March 26, 2003

Thanks, mitchel. I guess I should stop whistling that theme when I hear about Stalingrad, then, since that part hadn't even happened yet.
posted by soyjoy at 11:17 AM on March 26, 2003

This sounds awful, but I've often wondered if the censorship Shostakovich faced was an important part of what makes his music so wonderful (at least to me). Not that it is somehow more "meaningful" because of his cirumstances, but that the threat (and fact) of censorship imposed a kind of structure or discipline on his compositions that is absent from most other composers of his era.

I compare it to a great poet forced to write nothing but sonnets who manages to both work with and subvert the sonnet form. Shostakovich's music often seems to have more conventional tunes and structures than his contemporaries. Even if he's mocking or subverting those conventions, it gives me a point of departure that makes the music easier for me to appreciate and enjoy. I even hear it in his "private" works -- I find his string quartets far more beautiful and enjoyable than the supposedly greater Bartok quartets.
posted by straight at 11:43 AM on March 26, 2003

Straight :- Great point.
posted by plep at 11:56 AM on March 26, 2003

straight, i'm sure you know the old arguments about privation making great art have been used by marxist theorists to point to formless abstraction as bourgois western decadence, but more often used by western conservatives to decry anarchistic art as ugly / vice versa (and not worth the capitalist's dollar). i don't wish to paint you as the latter in what follows (and you're obviously not the former). but these are interesting concepts to keep in mind i think, cliched as they are.

i have to say that your conception of "structure or discipline on his compositions" must be different from mine. you are comparing shostakovitch to bartok, which is rather apples and oranges to my mind. the latter's quartets are hardly less structurally sound than the former's. bartok's schoenberg-derived interest in exploring advanced distances from tonal centers makes his harmonic movement often more abstract, though he balances this i think by trying to keep his melodic statements a bit more mutually interactive (a product of his folkloric interests). i assume you've given bartok's concerto for orchestra and miraculous mandarin a try? they are much more melodically expressive and direct.

if bartok, or schoenberg and webern, or god forbid cage and partch(!), had been subjected to the same pressures as shostakovitch, do you think that would have improved their music by reining them in in some way? yes, now this is a valid view; but it is about as relevant to me as saying, if mozart had been raised in the 20th century, he would have rejected atonal music, just as shostakovitch was forced to renounce it.

was shostakovitch in any way exposed to the same artistic community (vienna paris et al), where certain composers were, we still feel now as then, pushing the limits of tonality? i would say his works are better compared with firstly prokofiev of course, but more pertinently, other composers sufficiently removed from the front line... villa-lobos, delius, katchaturian, poulenc, bridge, carter, copland being some of the more well-known of his era. but the point of my argument is, had shostakovitch not been saddled with the obstacles he had, it is more likely that he would've studied not with schoenberg but somewhere else, and become a composer like copland (but better of course). probably his oevre would not be so dark as it is, but for every brahms there is a tchaikovsky.

if your taste runs to tonally classical/romantic string quartets of the 20th century, i urge you to investigate elizabeth maconchy and hilding rosenberg. not that they are as good as shostakovitch, or for that matter ever recorded by players of equivalent acuity and artistic flair; shostakovitch is indeed one of the masters of 20th century melodic statement for dramatic effect, along with stravinsky and bartok in my opinion.

to say "I find his string quartets far more beautiful and enjoyable than the supposedly greater Bartok quartets" reminds me of, "I find the police's or new order's new wave records far more beautiful and enjoyable than those of the supposedly greater public image ltd. or nurse with wound." comparing the big shots, a difficult thing.
posted by mitchel at 1:50 PM on March 26, 2003

Here's a long review of Shostakovich literature with some background on the continuing controversy about the degree of his dissidence.
posted by mookieproof at 3:13 PM on March 26, 2003

Thanks, mookieproof; I had been about to point out that the simplistic view of Shostakovich as dissident is hotly disputed, with Richard Taruskin (the author of the long article you link to) the most prominent attacker of the authenticity of Testimony (Shostakovich's purported memoirs). Lest anyone be too quickly convinced by Taruskin's rhetorical skill, here is an exchange between him and Terry Teachout (a defender of Testimony) which leaves the matter (to me, anyway) a complete mystery. Taruskin and Volkov (editor of Testimony) are both good, valuable writers, and I have no idea who's right.

One thing I do know, however, is that it's silly to use Shostakovich as a stick to beat Prokofiev or Bartok with. All three are among the greatest composers of the previous century, and to demean any of them is merely to reveal your own limitations.
posted by languagehat at 5:14 PM on March 26, 2003

Mitchel: lots of good points, particularly about how we can't know how similar Shostakovich's work might have been without censorship.

1. My comment comparing Shostakovich and Bartok does sound stupid. All I meant to say is that whatever it is about his music I like, it's not just in the big public works, but also the quartets. (I mentioned Bartok because I have the impression that those are the two most highly-regarded quartet cycles of the 20th century. Any others you'd mention in the same breath?)

2. Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues is maybe my favorite work in the western canon of music (at least in the top 5). And I think the reason I like it is that it takes all this exciting modern harmonic/melodic/rhythmic stuff and presents it in a systematic, classical, traditional format which gives it a form my under-educated brain can gasp an appreciate. Would Shostakovich have chosen such a project if he hadn't faced constant pressure to write more "conventional" music?

You answer: maybe he would have. And I guess it is a kind of silly, unanswerable question.
posted by straight at 7:52 PM on March 26, 2003

I'm not sure which is better, the post or the discussion (both are excellent). I'll keep reading.

Thank you, plep.
posted by hama7 at 4:14 AM on March 27, 2003

I'm delighted at the knowledge and erudition of the people who've contributed to this thread. It's most educational.
posted by plep at 2:23 PM on March 27, 2003

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