Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Seeking Solace in Soviet Music

Thoughts on the election result, number 2.

Springsteen, aging '80s bands, folkies and hip-hoppers are OK for firing up the base before the big event, but when the base is weeping post-event, stronger stuff is called for. Listeners looking for hope that the coming dark years can be endured can do no better than opening their ears to the great music written by Soviet composers during the era of totalitarianism.

Sergei Prokofiev is my favorite composer of all time, and Dmitri Shostakovich is in my personal top ten. These two Russian geniuses lived and worked through the hideous repression of Stalinism (and beyond, for Shostakovich; Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin). Somehow they managed to produce many sublime works that combine great abstract beauty with veiled yet deeply felt indictments of the murderous regime under which they toiled.

Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich made their share of artistic compromises in order to avoid the gulag -- Prokofiev's first wife, sadly, actually was sent away -- but the existence of their rabble-rousing works should not discourage anyone from exploring the profound sentiments of their acknowledged masterpieces. Listen to Prokofiev's tragic, ghostly Violin Sonata No. 1 or Shostakovich's savagely bitter String Quartet No. 8, for example. This is music that understands, that expresses, that feels the grief of an absurd, insane, violent world.

Both these composers were supremely gifted in the delicate art of musical satire. With just a few phrases, a single distorted traditional form, they could convey the raging stupidity of an oppressive bureaucracy. Shostakovich's specialty was the deranged waltz; Prokofiev's, the pompous march. No composer in history was more adept at musical mockery.

I also strongly recommend Prokofiev's War Sonatas (Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 and 8) for their brilliant and beautiful depiction of a brutal, mechanized world. Although these works are commonly associated with World War II (hence the nickname), they were in fact begun before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and are probably "about" the idiocy of Stalinism as much as, or more than, the horrors of the war.

In February, as part of our mini-subscription this season, my wife and I will be attending a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony that will include Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6. These are sorrowful, devastating works. The purpose of the program is to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, but I will use the occasion as a lesson in how to wrest meaning from an era of absurdity. If those artists could work through Stalinism, we can work through Bushism.

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