A barbarian-artist, with a sleepy brush,
Blackens over a picture of genius.
And his lawless drawing
Scribbles meaninglessly upon it.

But with the years the alien paints
Flake off like old scapes:
The creation of genius appears before us
In its former beauty.

Thus do delusions fall away
From my worn-out soul,
And there spring up within it
Visions of original, pure days.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
(Translated by Gerard McBurney)


Between the days of 13-22 September 2001, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev organised his sixth Rotterdam Philharmonic festival and this year the festival was dedicated to the great Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and more specifically to his "war symphonies", composed during the period from the mid-30's to the mid-40's. Besides Gergiev, one of the most important guests of this festival was Maxim Shostakovich, who was invited to Rotterdam to conduct his father's music (1). The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra also welcomed the Mariinski Theatre from St. Petersburg, drawing a historical parallel between the two cities, which were both deeply stricken by Nazi-Germany. One of the most important works of Shostakovich, the Seventh Symphony (the Leningrad Symphony), which was conducted by Valery Gergiev is a tragic expression of the suffering of the victims of fascism: Nazi aggression, as well as Stalinist terror.

Becoming famous at the age of 20 with the success of his First Symphony in 1926, Shostakovich played a dominant role in the cultural life of Soviet Russia, working in every conceivable field of classical music and producing his art passionately against oppression and human suffering. But, perhaps it was a quick and unfair decision of the modern world to associate his music with communist propaganda. This may explain why his works were not included in the repertoires of many Western countries for a long time. Fortunately today, the world has a better understanding of how deeply and tragically he underlined the struggle for beauty and good against hatred and evil. Despite pressure and oppression, Shostakovich's music reflected his search for peace and hope.

Apart from his symphonies, the 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with its Shakespearean interaction between tragedy and comedy, love and suffering, passion and mundane struck the audience at a time when the Soviet labour camps were filling up with new political victims. Stalin, who demanded a new 'socialist realism' in the arts using the means of Terror to achieve his ends, was highly disturbed by the opera and he had left the hall in the middle of the performance. On January 1936, an article in Pravda condemned the work as "chaos instead of music".

During the years of arrests and killings of the Great Terror, Shostakovich's response against Stalin was slow to come. In 1937, he composed music for theatre and cinema. In the same year, he composed Four Romances based on poems of Pushkin. The musical material of the romance Rebirth was also used in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony through which he gave an ironic response to Stalin and Soviet Party Officials. Shostakovich, who devoted himself to what he thought was necessary for the development of his music neither escaped from fighting, nor got involved in polemics at public meetings or in print. Only his close friends and his family were aware of his own state of mind and his complex personality. Under the pressures of a totalitarian regime, he told one of his friends that even if they chopped off his hands, he would continue to write music with his pen in his mouth.

An ironic humour, which gains its strength from the paradoxes of the human condition, gave a unique character to Shostakovich's music. Most of the time, he ironically challenged the ideologically imposed themes using innovative compositional techniques and also enjoyed playing on the expectations of audiences first by amusing them with clichés, such as heroic marches, or romantic waltzes and then unpredictably making them face the horror of human suffering. In a broader sense, under a regime of terror where words were silenced, and where no expression was found adequate, his music reached people and mirrored their time.

Is it not a tragic irony that this festival enabled Shostakovich to let his voice be heard in the midst of terrorist attacks? At the Gergiev Festival, we once again felt the vulnerability of love and peace, carrying our childish hopes in our hearts - maybe so naively against the footsteps of war and horror - into the new century.

Banu Kilan Paksoy


(1) Another guest of the festival was the British cellist and author Elizabeth Wilson, who attended the festival to give a symposium with Maxim Shostakovich. For those interested in learning more about Shostakovich, I strongly recommend Wilson's book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Princeton Univ. Press, 1994).


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