Music of the Great Purge

There’s been much bullshit and bafflegab written about Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 — he wrote some of it himself — and the baffelgab must, if coming from a Soviet citizen, be at least considered, if not understood, as a perhaps coded survival mechanism. As for Western music critics who asserted that Symphony No 5 in particular is all about the Party Line and Shostakovich being craven and full of praise for Stalinism: well, where does one start with such profound ignorance of the Soviet condition, of the limits of one’s own cultural myths about heroes, of how one shows courage in a tyranny of unprecedented and most intimate savagery?

In the admittedly disputed Testimony, memoirs as told to Solomon Moiseyevich Volkov between 1971 and 1974*, Shostkovich said of his work and its much-debated meanings that those who have ears can hear. Of the Fifth Symphony’s final movement, Shostakovich says to Volkov: ‘I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you wih a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”‘

Symphony No 5, composed in 1937 and premiered in November of that year, is clear. Whatever the dangers of a Soviet citizen saying so at the time — and that includes the composer himself — the symphony recognizes, acknowledges, and presents the Great Purge, its violence, lies, and sorrow. Audiences at the Leningrad, and then Moscow, premieres, the stories go, stood to applaud for a long time, weeping. From Testimony: ‘I’ll never believe that a man who understood nothing could feel the Fifth Symphony. Of course they understood, they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.’

This concert, which I found by accident, is my new favourite recording. It leaves me like Bruce Cockburn: ‘All you can do is praise the razor for the fineness of the slash.’

Paavo Jarvi conducts the Orcheste de Paris in 2015.

* Volkov’s original notes for Testimony, which were transcriptions of oral interviews then read and signed by Shostakovich at authentic and accurate, have disappeared. Maxim Dmitrievch Shostakovich at first said, in 1981 just after defecting, were ‘about’ his father’s context versus the words of his father, only to clarify in 1986 and at points beyond that yes, Volkov’s book is accurate. One must also consider MD Shostakovich’s fears for loved ones still in the USSR when examining his first statement on the issue. A defector might live in the West, but he was hardly free of the results of Soviet tyranny.



Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich in 1950. Stalin would live another three years. Photo by Deutsche Fototek, from Wikipedia.

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