August 3, 2013

Shostakovich Symphony no. 13 – Babi Yar

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — shostyscholar @ 11:00 pm

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.



  1. Brilliant post. Nicely done.

    Your thoughts on the premiere recording with my boy Kiril Kondrashin…?

    Comment by crackladen — August 3, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    • I want to like the Kondrashin, I really do! It’s just a little unpolished and the baritone is not so hot. I like the slightly faster tempo under Masur, and Leiferkus really can’t be beat. Contrast this with the 14th symphony, for which the premiere recording (with Barshai and Vishnevskaya) really is the best performance I know of.

      Comment by shostyscholar — August 3, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

  2. Brilliant post. Nicely done.

    Your thoughts on the premiere recording with my boy Kiril Kondrashin…?

    Comment by crackladen — August 3, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

  3. Great stuff! Gotta love shosty…

    Comment by Alison — August 20, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

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