MW 6: Life is Beautiful
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky 1839-1881
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Songs and Dances of Death

Orch. Dmitry Shostakovich

There exist only four images of Modest Musorgsky dating from various stages of his life, but the final portrait – by far the most famous – by I. E. Repin, painted days before the composer’s death from chronic alcoholism, shows a sullen mouth, a blue-eyed gaze somewhere beyond the top/right of the canvas, wildly unkempt hair and beard, and a sizable paunch pushing out a shapeless informal jacket – the image of dissipation.

Although Musorgsky was prodigiously talented as a child, his family’s social status would have certainly precluded a career in music. As a youth, he entered a military academy – where he began his lifelong addiction to alcohol – eventually entering the elite Preobrazhensky Guards.

Musorgsky was a proponent of Russian nationalism, a member of the “Mighty Five” – together with Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – whose goal was to further the pan-Slavic movement and Russian nationalist music. With the exception of Rimsky-Korsakov, they were all amateur musicians who critiqued and learned from each other. Submitting a score for the group’s perusal, however, could be a harrowing experience, which we can partially blame for Musorgsky’s meager output and a string of unfinished and abandoned projects.

Musorgsky composed Songs and Dances of Death in 1875-77 for voice and piano, planning to orchestrate them. Given his chaotic and dissolute lifestyle, he never got around to the orchestration and following his death a string of composers, starting jointly with Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, prepared orchestral versions. The most often used today is the 1962 version by Shostakovich.

The four poems are by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, a relative of the composer. The poems represent an angry protest against man’s mere temporal existence, each poem dealing with a different aspect of death. All four songs consist of a narrator and Death, who drains the life out of the victims with comforting words. Of special interest is Musorgsky’s personification of Death as both a male and a female. These songs are all through composed, hence are more scene in which the words dictate the nature of the music.
1. Lullaby. A desperate mother cradles her sick child who gets weaker by the minute. Compassionate Death enters and a short argument between him and the mother ensues. Death finally claims the child. Example 1 Musorgsky contrasts the mother’s intensifying panic with Death’s soothing responses that are suddenly cut off with the last breath of the child. Example 2

2. Serenade. Death, like a lover, waits at midnight outside the window of a dying young woman. He will suffocate her with his strong embrace. The composer distinguishes the voice of the narrator and death with a change in meter, Example 3 the serenade appropriately in triple time. Example 4

3. Trepak. A drunken peasant stumbles out in a snowstorm in a lonely forest, right into the arms of Death. Example 5 She invites him to dance the Trepak, a traditional Ukrainian folk dance. Example 6 As he freezes to death, the peasant dreams of blossoming summer fields and doves flying above.

4. The Field Marshal. After a brutal battle Example 7 Death, in the guise of a field marshal, inspects the dead troops of both sides parading before her in a moonlit night. Example 8
Dmitry Shostakovich 1906-1975
Dmitry Shostakovich
Dmitry Shostakovich
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

In his youth, Dmitry Shostakovich was a true son of the Russian Revolution and a true believer. But the 1930s revealed Joseph Stalin as a purveyor of Russia’s own holocaust with millions murdered outright or sent to perish in the gulags.

Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District (1937) fell afoul of the musical apparatchiks and suddenly placed him in constant fear for his life. Nevertheless, he would not be totally silenced. Instead, he began to develop a secret musical language through which he could express his true feelings of revulsion at Stalin’s reign of terror. With the Fifth Symphony, he managed to talk his way out from under the disapprobation of the censors with a kind of doublespeak that “redefined” the grim symphony into a paean to Soviet glory. Shostakovich also frequently used his chamber music to express his most intimate and personal feelings. These works were, in effect, a musical diary, and he kept them secreted for much of his life. His public output was a combination of superficial propagandistic film scores – which Stalin liked and approved. He was one of the only Russian composers of note to survive to tell the tale.

World War II brought a breather and an upsurge of patriotism, the horrors of the 30s being temporarily shelved. The winter of 1942-43 brought the first sign of a turnaround in the fortunes of the war in Russia. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February 1943 was a major turning point, although it took another year and a half to drive the last Germans from Russian soil. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”) achieved international accolades for its portrayal of German brutality during the horrific siege of Leningrad.

To raise the spirit of the devastated population, the authorities decreed that artists should create upbeat and optimistic works to commemorate the victory, as well as praises of Stalin. Artists were forced to sell their souls to keep alive and not be silenced.

Shostakovich, however, was responding to the millions of dead, the country in chaos and ruin, and the apparatchiks still in control. His Symphony No. 8 reflects his agony and horror over the carnage – Between Stalin and Hitler, Russia lost around 20 to 30 million people. The Symphony’s bleak tone and muted conclusion did not fit into the prevailing governmental directives, and it was severely criticized by his fellow composers, including Sergey Prokofiev. It was essentially banned and not resurrected until 1956, three years after Stalin’s death.

That being said, we cannot attribute a specific narrative trajectory to the Symphony. Within a scrupulously constructed musical structure lies a highly emotive language that speaks directly to the heart without requiring a chapter-by-chapter roadmap.

Nearly a half hour in length, the first movement is a great arch and can almost be regarded as a summary of the Symphony as a whole. After an initial statement containing a three-note motto that pervades the work, Example 1 long string themes in unison give a sense of desolation and despair. Example 2 The development section begins quietly but soon presents a violent contrast, forecasting the anger and chaos encompassed in later movements, Example 3 a militaristic nightmare with a full complement of shrieking woodwinds and percussion. Example 4 The recapitulation begins with a six-minute solo by the orchestra’s most mournful instrument, the English horn. Example 5

The second movement is largely based on the three-note motto of the Symphony. Example 6 This quick-march is reminiscent in some ways of Mahler. Shostakovich was not averse to using musical sarcasm to make his point, and this movement, a dig at militarism, includes a piccolo solo (the proverbial fife) Example 7 and passages of his famous lighthearted “circus” music. Example 8

A driving ostinato dominates the third movement, punctuated by shrieks. Example 9 Shostakovich spends a long time on this idea, passing it through the sections of the orchestra, until switching gears into a militaristic trumpet solo, punctuate with snare drum flourishes. Example 10 Whatever narrative or symbolic meaning this movement may have is shrouded, but screams and snare drums speak a universal language. The movement ends – or the fourth begins¬ – with a massive orchestral repeat of the scream. Example 11

The next ten minutes comprise a pianissimo chromatic dirge in the Baroque form of a passacaglia. Example 12 Shostakovich was not the first composer to use the chromatic passacaglia (Chaconne) as a musical lament; the most famous is the aria “When I am Laid in Earth” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. The movement comprises twelve repetitions of the theme many of which feature orchestral soloists.

A serpentine bassoon and contrabassoon duet, opening with the Symphony’s three-note motto begins the fifth movement, continuing the mood of the lament but speeding the tempo from largo to allegretto while retaining the hushed dynamics of the dirge. Example 13 Musicologist David Hurwitz has characterized this movement: “If the Symphony were to have a ‘hero’ in the typical romantic sense, he emerges seriously wounded.” The movement gradually adds more instruments and develops the bassoon theme into a fugue (another reference to the past, since nearly every Classical symphony included one in the finale) Example 14 The climax represents a final scream, recalling the third movement Example 15 but then immediately continues in quiet resignation. The nearly silent ending did not please the authorities.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018