The sad but wonderful music of Dmitri Shostakovitch

By October 25, 2012Education, History, Music, Other

The final concert of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra last night gave us Berlioz, Shostakovitch and Saint-Saens, and it was impressive from beginning to end. Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture was the first work of the French composer I heard, way back in the 1950s, and its big-bang exuberance is a great way to start any concert.

I first heard anything of Shostakovitch in 1964, the first violin concerto and the first symphony at the same time, and I knew at once that he was important, and that I should hear as much of his music as I could. The first cello concerto had already been written, and I heard it the next year in London. At about the same time I began to listen to his chamber music, especially the eighth of the fifteen string quartets  he wrote, which I played again and again. That string quartet, which I think is the best written in the 20th century, moves me a great deal, as does all of his music. There are allusions in the eighth quartet from the cello concerto (and also from his first piano trio).

The concerto was played in masterly fashion by Julian Smiles, and his singing tone brought out the sadness that runs right through the concerto. It is easy to say that the composer had a great deal to put up with, and indeed the eighth string quartet contains in its pages the pre-dawn ‘knock on the door’ that would herald the secret police,  arriving to take him off to the gulag (Shostakovitch kept a small suitcase packed for just such an eventuality). His music is spare, beautifully crafted and often sombre. It is like no one else’s, and I find it (and him) continually fascinating.

He wrote the concerto as a piece of composition, but eventually dedicated it to Mstislav Rostropovitch, who gave its first performance, and for whom the composer wrote his second cello concerto. I heard Rostropovitch play in the US, and was bowled over by him. So I believe the account I read that Shostakovitch sent over the piano rendition of the score, once he had composed it. Rostropovitch send it back at once, saying that he liked it and would come across the next day to go through it with him. When he appeared he handed the score to the composer and sat down at his cello. ‘I don’t need the score’ he said to Shostakovitch, ‘I have committed it to memory’.

For me the cello concerto was the major work, but after interval we had the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, which came out as No.2 in the Top 100 French works in the recent ABC Countdown. I have never heard this work live, and was most intrigued as to the sound of the electronic organ on the stage. Twenty years ago, when in Hamamatsu in Japan, I had the opportunity to pay briefly on the big Roland electronic organ that had just been completed, and it consisted of a keyboard and the biggest collection of speakers I had ever seen in one place. I remembered what I could of  the first few bars of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor by J. S. Bach, and was almost thrown from the seat by the sound around me.

The beautiful organ on stage showed what twenty years of progress can do. The low bass sounds of the second movement rumbled through the audience and the building, and the great chords that start the fourth movement were shattering. What a performance, and what a sound! The audience stood and cheered and clapped — Saint-Saens’s 3rd Symphony is unquestionably a great crowd-pleaser.

The orchestra was in excellent form, but I wondered what would happen to it in the future. During the day I read that five members of the ANU School of Music who had not sought redundancy, but had applied for their own jobs, had been told they did not have the necessary qualifications, which now include research prowess. Most of the others have already left. It is beginning to look as though the School of Music, one of Australia’s leading musical performance schools, is coming to an end. The great majority of the CSO’s players have, or have had, some connection with the School, as students, staff or visitors. Where will its future players come from?

The impact on the city will be considerable. Canberra’s rich musical life has a great deal to do with the School of Music, which provides educational programs for the schools, and an annual production of proficient graduates. Some of them go on to make international names for themselves, like Julian Smiles, but others remain in the city, and find careers which allow them to perform and to support other performers.

And presumably the ACT Government will be wanting the return of the building that houses the School and Llewellyn Hall, Canberra’s leading performance space. It was given to the ANU for a purpose, not as a free gift. What will happen to the School of Art, housed next door in the old Canberra high School building, once my own high school? Its staff, after all, have no more research prowess than their musical colleagues. That attribute was not in their original job description any more than it was for the musicians.

I cannot think of any worse example of how to treat university staff than the story of what has happened to those in the ANU School of Music this year. Shostakovitch lived in that kind of culture, and his music conveys its fear, sadness and emptiness. Perhaps that is why it resonates so much in me, and in other Western listeners: there, but for the grace of democracy and and a different history, go we.

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