Sunday, September 28, 2003


I had the good fortune to catch Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony in its entirety on WCAL radio during my drive home from work Thursday night. (September 25 was his birthday; he would have been 97.) I don't think I had ever heard it before, but now I can't get it out of my head. At least, I can't get the second (I think) subject from the opening movement out of my head. Carried by the flutes (or maybe piccolos; me no expert, as you've undoubtedly inferred by now) and supported by oompah-ish horns and drums, it sounds like a chorus of lobotomites attempting to whistle the theme song from Hogan's Heroes.

Not the stuff of great art? Well, consider the circumstances:
Shostakovich composed this work for Schumann-sized orchestra plus percussion in the summer of 1945, and Yevgeny Mravinsky led the first performance at Leningrad on November 3 of that year. Given the size of Shostakovich's war-haunted seventh and eighth symphonies, Joseph Stalin expected a Ninth in 1945 that "out-Mahlered Beethoven," in the late Boris Schwarz's phrase. In Testimony, Solomon Volkov recalled the composer's saying, "They wanted a fanfare from me, an ode, a majestic Ninth....I doubt that Stalin ever questioned his own genius or greatness. But when the war against Hitler was won, he went off the deep end, like a frog puffing himself up to the size of an ox, and now I was supposed to write an apotheosis of Stalin. I simply could not....My stubbornness cost me dearly."
In other words, whistling lobotomites was not what Stalin had in mind. The symphony does not go on like this at great length, of course, but the work as a whole does come off as an exercise in confounding expectations; after the light-hearted charm of the "Haydnesque" first movement, the dominant moods of the remaining movements range from wistful and pensive to anxious and foreboding, but triumphalism is conspicuously absent throughout. And the lobotomite theme itself is cleverly ambiguous: like the Toreador Song from Carmen, it is parodistic yet memorable on its own terms, so how you hear it depends on which way you're looking. (Er, listening.)

Shostakovich apparently lived for years in the shadow of the Gulag for this and like "offenses" against Stalinist orthodoxy. And I can't help but wonder how many artists faced similar specters under the regime of this era's most prominent Stalin wannabe, Saddam Hussein. I think it's possible to make an honest case against the war in Iraq, though I still think the case for is the better one. But what's maddening about most opponents of the war--particularly the infantile, "give peace a chance" ones--is their consisent refusal to acknowledge the human toll of not going to war. The scores of people who would have been killed or raped or tortured had we not toppled Saddam are the most obvious beneficiaries of Bush's hegemonic war-mongering, but we shouldn't overlook the second-order effects, less immediately brutal but in some ways more insidious, that Saddam's government must have inflicted on the Iraqi people. When composing a symphony or writing a novel or painting a picture requires putting your life at risk, we're not going to get very many symphonies or novels or pictures, or at any rate ones worth hearing/reading/seeing (though there will always be a handful of supremely courageous Shostakoviches). Not a crime against humanity, I suppose, but certainly one against civilization.

(WCAL, by the way, is the independent public radio service of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, which is about an hour's drive south of the Twin Cities. The station is "independent" not of National Public Radio--in fact, it's a founding member of NPR, according to its website--but of the Bill Kling-on Empire otherwise known as Minnesota Public Radio. "Our independence," the website continues, "allows us to bring you unique programs in our own distinctive style — a style we know our listeners value." This boast, believe it or not, is true. Exhibit A is Bill Morelock's "Drivetime Classics" show, which runs on weekdays from 3 to 7 PM and was responsible for broadcasting the Shostakovich Ninth that touched off this little cultural disquisition. Morelock is fond of Glenn Gould, and that is all you really need to know.)


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