Over at Medium, my friend Danny and I are embarked on a project to listen to and write about every Bach cantata. This should be a pretty interesting journey–hope to see you there.
June 12, 2014
August 29, 2013
For a lot of pieces the story of how I came to know them is lost in the muck of memory – no idea when I first heard Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, for example. The 13th Symphony came to my attention very specifically however. My junior high band director, aware of a burgeoning fascination with the music of Shostakovich, brought a vinyl copy of the 13th to the school and lent it to me. I don’t remember the performers and I’m pretty sure I didn’t realize what the subject matter was, but I was spellbound by the music and returned to it years later. You were fairly creepy and more than a little smelly, but thanks for that, Mr. Bufkin.
If you listen to the Babi Yar movement of the 13th with the subject matter in mind, one thing might strike you as odd – despite the thoroughly Jewish subject matter, there is no overtly “Jewish” music. Shostakovich had used a Jewish idiom – in the song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and the 2nd piano trio, as well as in the 8th String Quartet, tellingly dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war” – but there’s no such idiom to be found in this, his only major work dealing explicitly with Jewish suffering. The absence of any “Jewishness” in the music certainly raises some eyebrows, and to me represents perhaps the greatest question of the work – even a musicological problem to solve. I don’t have the answer – and anyone who tells you they do in musical matters such as this is selling snake oil – but I do have a few thoughts as to why Shostakovich avoided a Jewish idiom in Babi Yar. There are at least two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, forces potentially at work.
The first was purely practical – a Jewish musical idiom would have emphasized the Holocaust as a crime against Jewish people. This isn’t alarming to our ears but – due to the unofficial anti-semitism in the Soviet bureaucracy and the tenets of Marxism-Leninism which did not recognize peoples, only classes – the Soviet authorities did not allow talk about the Holocaust as anything but a crime perpetrated against Soviet citizens. Shostakovich no doubt anticipated some controversy (as indeed the poem had sparked – and a Shostakovich symphony had a lot more eyes on it than a young upstart’s poem!), and avoiding “Jewish” music may have served to do lip service to the official Soviet internationalist interpretation of the Holocaust.
Indeed, a more generalized and less specifically Jewish musical underscoring to the poem may have served Shostakovich’s designs anyway, as I think he was interested in tying the fate and trials of the Jewish people to that of the Soviet citizenry. Certainly the other movements of the symphony (“Humor”, “In the Store”, “Fears”, and “Career”) are heavily concerned with the suffering of Shostakovich’s compatriots. The consistent musical idiom metaphorically ties the suffering of two very different people together. The poem’s narrator declares at the beginning that “it seems to me that I am a Jew” and Shostakovich’s musical choice serves to highlight that this a Soviet man who emphasizes so strongly with the Jews.
August 3, 2013
I hate being asked who my favorite composer is. Or what my favorite work is. To me these are questions that can have no answer. How could I prefer the architectural sublimity of The Art of Fugue to the brainmelting glory of the Hammerklavier sonata? Or prefer either of them to the sexiness of The Rite of Spring, for that matter? A question I may stand a chance answering however is what work I find the most interesting. Depending on what’s been on my mind lately, the answer to that question might be Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony – Babi Yar. Full disclosure – I wrote my undergraduate thesis on this work and could literally talk about it for days. Just so you know what you’re getting into.
Most classical music fans know at least something of Shostakovich, but not many can say much about the 13th, which is a shame. This – a choral symphony from the 20th-century instrumental symphony master, a work commemorating Jewish suffering from a member of the Soviet communist party – is more likely to confuse a new listener than immediately yield its meaning. There’s just so much to unpack here. I think to forestall overwhelming complexity, we’ll focus here on the first movement, from which the Babi Yar subtitle of the symphony is taken.
A little background first. Shostakovich wrote this in the early 1960s, premiering it in 1962. This was the height of the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, which possibly explains why Shostakovich thought he could get away with overtly denouncing anti-semitism when anti-semitism was de facto Soviet policy. Significantly, the symphony was Shostakovich’s first vocal symphony since the 3rd, premiered in 1930. It was also, as far as my research can determine, the first time Shostakovich openly engaged in social criticism of Soviet society in his music. This is a big deal.
The text was taken from the poetry of a young upstart poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Babi Yar is the name of a ravine outside Kiev, considered to be one of the earliest and best documented massacres conducted by the Nazi SS against the Eastern European Jews. It’s estimated that over 33,000 Jews were executed in a single operation at Babi Yar, and that the total death toll of lives taken there was over 100,000.
Read the text of poem here.
I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of the first movement because that would be tedious and patronizing to your intelligence. Let’s just take note of some interesting things. Consider the vocal line from the first movement – it goes back and forth between the baritone soloist and the chorus, but there is never more than one pitch at a time throughout the entire movement – it’s a complete monody! That certainly raises some eyebrows. Given the Soviet context of the work, the monodic vocal line can’t help but be evocative of the Soviet mass song, that ubiquitous genre of the Stalinist era (and after that, even!). Like Shostakovich’s vocal part, the mass song was typically monodic or close to it and deeply entwined with Soviet propaganda and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Examining Yevtushenko’s text, there’s much potential for interchange between the baggage of the mass song genre and the meaning of lines such as “…and that is why I am at true Russian!” But this is slow, plodding! And in a minor key! The relationship between the vocal line and the mass song isn’t simple mimicry, it’s nearly parody – something Shostakovich excelled at. As the narrator of the poem explores his own liquid identity, in turn identifying with different Jewish characters through history and then returning to his own contemporary Soviet identity, he does so in the style of a genre that does not explore identity, but declaims it as truth!
In a larger sense, Shostakovich’s movement seems to be creating the missing monument that was noted in the first line of Yevtushenko’s poem: “Above Babi Yar there are no monuments” – an interesting sentence in Russian, as it lacks a subject, which only makes the absence more stark. There are no monuments, yes, but I don’t know what else the massive and nearly inhuman instrumental – and significantly, voiceless (“…And I myself, like one long soundless scream”) - climax of the movement could be taken for other than an attempt to monumentalize what happened at Babi Yar. To me Shostakovich’s efforts are more or less successful – not because he dissects the event and builds something rational to talk about it, but because he doesn’t try to make something comprehensible and understandable. Instead, he engages in near hysteria – how else, after all, can we even begin to talk about such an event?
The performance of this that I find really exceptional is Kurt Masur with Sergei Leiferkus and the New York Philharmonic, but I can’t find that so here’s the second best – Royal Concertgebouw and Bernard Haitink.
April 23, 2011
Here are my top four tips for effective practice.
1) Never don’t play music
I originally thought to omit this tip because I as I noted above, I meant to go beyond what I deemed common sense. Several conversations lately have convinced me that this is a more contentious idea than I originally thought, however. The basic thrust of the idea is that if you are playing (or singing, as the case may be) you should be making music. I never pick up my oboe without the intent to make music. Scales, finger exercises, long tones – all of these can be played musically; it is in fact profoundly good practice to make music out of a long tone.
The reason it’s important to make music always is that old rule of practice – any error you make in practice is something that can come haunt you in performance. Playing unmusically is an error, and playing a passage with less than stellar musicality in practice reduces your likelihood of playing with maximum musicality in performance, just as a passage that’s practiced with a wrong note is likely to trip you up in performance.
As I spoke to people about this idea, I found the main objection they had was based on a misconception. Many thought that if you try to play everything musically, you can’t get granular enough to practice the minute details that are equally important to the finished product. I think this is incorrect. Playing musically does not mean the smallest unit you can play is the phrase. Every phrase in music is composed of sub-phrases, which are composed of even smaller building blocks. You can practice two notes at a time and still do so musically.
2) Schedule practice time
I originally started thinking about scheduling all my practice time when I was in college. I didn’t so much schedule my practice time as have it scheduled for me by virtue of all the other activities in my day, leaving me with pretty obvious choices for when to practice if I wanted to get the amount in I needed. Since college, I have a freer schedule and so the problem has become one of motivation. As an experiment, I starting blocking time off on my calendar for practicing and it’s worked out well.