Dmitri Shostakovich at 110: 24-Hour Marathon

Monday, September 19, 2016

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich would've turned 110 on September 25, 2016 Composer Dmitri Shostakovich would've turned 110 on September 25, 2016 (schostakowitsch-tage.de/Jeremy Brooks on flickr)

On Sunday, Sept. 25, the 110th anniversary of Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth, Q2 Music's Phil Kline hosts 24 consecutive hours of his music. There will be heroic portions of symphonies, concertos and chamber music, and all of the performances feature Soviet ensembles, soloists or conductors–artists who had special connections with Shostakovich. These will include premiere recordings, performances by the Beethoven quartet – for whom Shostakovich wrote nearly all his quartets – and the Preludes and Fugues Op. 87, played by the composer himself. This 24-hour marathon repeats Tuesday, Sept. 27.

If Citizen Kane was the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, it would begin in a Moscow hospital room in 1975. A sick man lies in bed, coldly gazing upon the gray skyline outside. As he draws his last breath, a passing orderly hears him mutter the words “the toyshop.” Alarms go off, nurses run and doctors gather, then men in overcoats arrive. “He was a great man,” they say, “but what is this toyshop?”

Cut to 1924 and noisy patrons crowding a small Leningrad cinema for the latest silent comedy. As they howl with laughter, a teenager with dark, tousled hair and thick glasses improvises wildly at the piano. He is having a ball. Many come just to hear him play, but others are irritated by the modern-sounding music and complain to the manager. After the show he is fired. He and his friends laugh it off until the young man realizes the loss of income will not seem funny to his mother. He returns to his family’s crowded apartment and resumes work on his first symphony.

1934. Now the most famous composer in the Soviet Union, his Symphony No. 4 is in rehearsal. Out of the blue he is denounced by Stalin in a Pravda editorial entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It is no laughing matter, friends and colleagues have been “disappearing” at an alarming rate. The Symphony is withdrawn. Then a new Symphony appears, No. 5, subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” It is more sober than his previous work, but somehow manages to satisfy both his critics and his fans. He carries on cautiously, and more denunciations are to come.

1964. Stalin is long dead. The composer's long-suppressed 4th Symphony is premiered to great acclaim. He survives, but looks older than his years, his face sunken and clenched in a deep scowl, surrounded by an ever-present halo of cigarette smoke. He has written big symphonies for his public and a remarkable series of string quartets which seem altogether more private and confessional. His last works are death-haunted, filled with shade, dim light and stillness. The final symphony, No. 15, begins playfully, then descends into a shadow world of ticking clocks and Wagner quotes. Audiences are baffled. When asked what it all means, the composer says only “the toyshop.”

For years, the meaning of Shostakovich’s life and music have been debated – the degree to which he resisted the will of Soviet authorities, and whether that resistance is expressed in his music. The authenticity of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony has been justifiably questioned, yet as a reader who knows the backstory and music pretty well, I would agree with the composer’s son Maxim, who said (sounding rather like his notoriously wry father) that it was “the truth, more or less.”

As to the toyshop… when Jerry Thompson, the reporter in Citizen Kane, is asked about the meaning of Kane’s last word, he says “maybe Rosebud was something he lost.” And I think of the kid with the wild hair playing in the cinema. For at least that moment he was in the toyshop, joyful and carefree.

On Sunday, Sept. 25, the 110th anniversary of Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth, Q2 Music's Phil Kline hosts 24 consecutive hours of his music. There will be heroic portions of symphonies, concertos and chamber music, and all of the performances feature Soviet ensembles, soloists or conductors–artists who had special connections with Shostakovich. These will include premiere recordings, performances by the Beethoven quartet – for whom Shostakovich wrote nearly all his quartets – and the Preludes and Fugues Op. 87, played by the composer himself. This 24-hour marathon repeats Tuesday, Sept. 27.

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Comments [2]

unsilentphil from NYC

Those are not his last words but rather a fantasy riff on the "Rosebud" of Citizen Kane. "The toyshop" was what he said when asked what the 15th Symphony was about, and apparently the first movement was at one point called The Toyshop. I've never seen any last words attributed to DDS.

Sep. 24 2016 02:03 PM
Shosty fan

Do you have a source on those last words of Shostakovich? Russian or English would be fine-have never heard this before!

Sep. 23 2016 08:49 PM

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