August 29, 2013

The Surprisingly Goy Music of Babi Yar

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — shostyscholar @ 10:12 pm

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.  


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