About fear and freedom

Sorrow. © Charles Thibo
Sorrow. © Charles Thibo

I was in Orlando when I was 8 years old. I visited the Walt Disney World Resort with my family and I had a lot of fun. The steamer. The roller-coaster. Mickey. Peter Pan. A place of joy. No more. Orlando has become a synonym for bloodshed. 49 dead at the “Pulse”. I am not gay and I don’t attach a lot of importance to people’s sexual orientation. I struggle with the question whether homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children, more out of concern for children’s well-being than for moral reasons. But nothing justifies the violence against dancers in a gay club.

I have deep respect for anyone’s creed: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists… But religions have in common that they try to comfort man whenever he is in need of hope and consolation. Their aim is not to make one’s life miserable. No, no religion justifies the violence against dancers at a gay club. It doesn’t matter whether Omar Siddiqui Mateen really adhered to the beliefs of the Islamic State or whether he was a disenchanted US citizen with easy access to weapons – what he did was wrong on all accounts.

No escape from reality

When I left the house this morning, the sky was grey. While I listened to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor,  the news of the weekend started to sink in. I had deliberately kept these thoughts away over the weekend, but on Mondays there is no escape from the harsh reality of today’s world. 49 dead. Gratuitous murder. We are vulnerable, yes. But we are also strong. The freedom to live our lives as we please makes us strong. The justice guaranteed by constitutions and laws. Violence, especially random violence, is the trademark of the coward.

Marches, irony, triumph

The first movement of Shostakovich’s Op. 47 starts with a dramatic opening, leading to a string theme full of sorrow and nostalgia. The bassoons set in and announce something oppressive in a distant future, while the strings and later the flutes seem to attempt to play down the foreboding. A second theme is introduced by the strings and gradually the tempo of the movement increases to reach a climax. Parallel to the change in tempo, Shostakovich introduces the louder instruments: brass and percussions, playing a sinister, violent march. After the climax, the tempo changes back into a slower mode and strings and flutes play a consoling, reassuring theme.

The second, rather short movement starts with a variation of the first theme of the first movement, performed by the double-bass, contrasted by the flutes, expressing certain mocking distance. As we have seen in a previous post, grotesque melodies are one of Shostakovich’s hallmarks. The third movement is marked by its singular tension: Serenity, mixed with sorrow, the long introductory theme played by the strings, is turning into nervousness, anxiety, expressed by the strings barely perceptible and the flute, the oboe and the clarinet. The tension remains unresolved til the end. Very moving, very disturbing. A true masterwork.

The last movement starts with a surprise attack of the flutes (or the oboes?) and percussions, it is very agitated, the tempo increases and decreases like in the first movement, two march-like themes, crescendo up to an all-out roll of thunder, followed by a meditative part and finally triumph!

Shostakovich redeemed

Shostakovich wrote the symphony between April and July 1937 and he was anxious about its premiere. Two years before, the official press had lambasted an opera and a ballet of the composer as not reflecting the ideals of Socialist Realism – a rebuke by the Communist Party of the USSR that often preceded deportation to labour camps. Stalin’s regime was becoming more and more repressive and a general feeling of insecurity pervaded society. Politicians, intellectuals, independent minded artists became an endangered species. In 1936, Shostakovich had withdrawn his Symphony No. 4. He was afraid. Afraid that the music could again offend party officials as being inspired too much by the “decadent bourgeoisie of the West”. After all, Shostakovich was a great admirer of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg.

However, the work became extremely popular at once, and the official critics from the state-run press took a conciliatory stance. The composer gave it no official name. The music was supposed to speak for itself. Nevertheless he hinted that one of the ideas behind the symphony was the process of growing up, of building a (Socialist) personality. He spoke about “a lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory”. If he had been naive about the political atmosphere surrounding him before 1935, his sudden fall from grace made him realize how dangerous an artist’s life could become in an oppressive state.

Freedom means composing, publishing and performing music expressing our deepest emotions. Freedom means dancing where we want, with whom we want and on the music we like. And this freedom we will not give up.

All of Shostakovich’s symphonies have been recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “About fear and freedom”

  1. I am very interested in the life of Shostakovich under this enormous pressure from the ugly Stalinistic system. How do you survive in such a dangerous environment ? I can’t understand people can judge him as a “composer of the system”. He shows many signs of resistance against the brutality of Stalin.

    1. This book should then be something for you: Fay, Laurel: Shostakovich. A life. New York 2000 I have read by now half of it, it is really good. Informative on all accounts and the question how far or how close Shostakovich was to the Communist regime is nicely illustrated.

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