Monday, October 02, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dmitri

As I have mentioned in several entries to this blog in the past, music and those who create it and play it, play a very important roll in my studio time. This year marks the 100th Birthday celebration of Dmitri Shostakovich and yesterday, I attended the opening concert of this year's Baltimore Symphony season, the orchestra under the direction of Director Emeritus, Yuri Temirkanov. Mr. Temirkanov knew Shostakovich before his death in 1975 and was the perfect conductor for the performance of Dmitri's 5th Symphony, a piece written in Russia at the height of Stalin's purges of not only the general populace, but also of creative people in all fields of the arts.

Throughout his entire life, Shostakovich walked 'a tightrope blindfolded without a safety net', in the words of Russian music scholar, Laurel Fay (as mentioned in the program notes for yesterday's concert). Like so many at that time and even before him, Shostakovich needed to remain true to his inner creative voice, yet at the same time, he needed to pay sufficient 'lip service' to the Stalin regime as those such as the celebrated writer, Maxim Gorky, lost their lives.

In the mid to late 1930's, a time during which millions of Soviet citizens lost their lives to Stalin's societal dictates, Shostakovich, then in his late 20's, premiered his opera, Lady Macbeth of Msensk in which he spotlighted his dissonant music in a 'lurid tale of lust and murder'. Quite popular with the audiences, when Stalin finally attended a performance several years after its premier, the dictator was horrified and left the theater before the end of the opera. Thereafter, Shostakovich became a 'non-person', his fellow composers avoiding him and speaking out against him. Such was the fear within Shostakovich for his very life, he, like many others, kept a suitcase packed in readiness for flight from the country at any moment.

But, by the late 1930's it was apparent that Shostakovich had weathered the uproar and was given a chance to rehabilitate himself by 'writing a suitably triumphant symphony for Leningrad's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution'. He set out to counteract the response, in Stalin, to his advanced, modernest music in the opera by simplifying his musical language, making it more consonant and tonal, more melodic and thus hoping, more pleasing to the authorities.

The 5th Symphony, much easier on the ears than many of Shostakovich's earlier works, was quite a success when premiered and remains such today. And so, Shostakovich, unlike many of his fellow Soviet artists, writers, dramatists and players, survived the Stalinist era and went on to write some of the most intuitive, individual and thought provoking music of the 20th century.

Like Shostakovich, painters and others in the fine arts have had to weather similar periods of time and walk the same sort of tightrope throughout history. It is comonly felt that the arts do indeed reflect what is happening in society at any given time and therefore, artists tend to attract the wrath of those in society, in the majority or in seats of power (either actual or implied), or those with the loudest voice!

We creative souls though, must I feel, as Shostakovich did throughout his lifetime, allow our inner beings to command. We must follow our hearts to whatever end they shall lead us. We must reflect what is around us and at the same time, make peace with it, sometimes being more tentative than direct, but always putting down on canvas or paper that which dictates our rising every day, our joy in work and our need to make art that can inspire, educate, tell a much needed story or, in the end, fulfill the need for those around us to have the arts to escape to.

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