Mass Murder and a Lesson in Morality

Mass murder at Babi Yar. © Archiv des Hamburger Instituts für Sozialforschung

More than 33000 men and women dead. One and a half day of mass shootings. Babi Yar, Ukraine. In 1941, German soldiers from the SS corps and the regular army killed a large part of the Jewish population of Kiev in the ravine of Babi Yar just outside the city. Loud opera music was played during the operation to drown the cries and the noise of the machine guns.

Two decades later, in 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko published a poem with the title “Babi Yar” remembering the victims of one of the largest war crimes committed during World War II and condemning all types of anti-Antisemitism. A daring move as anti-Antisemitism had been rampant under Stalin’s rule. The poet quickly stood accused of driving a wedge between nationalities in the Soviet Union by  elevating the plight of the Ukrainian Jews over the suffering of other Soviet citizen. Despite the obvious risks, Dmitry Shostakovich embarked on the composition of a symphony by setting the poem to music.

The Soviet composer produced an extraordinary emotional piece, unlike any symphony I know. As a matter of fact, Shostakovich’s 13th symphony (op. 113) has more in common with an oratorio than with a symphony as it has been written for an orchestra with choir. Initially it was meant to become a symphonic poem, but the composer became aware of three additional poems written by Yevtushenko, which he wanted to set to music too. This is how a larger, five-movement-symphony took shape. Shostakovich completed the piano score in March 1962 and the full score a month later. I have an excellent recording by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink and the male singers of the orchestra’s choir, which I would like to recommend warmly.

Shostakovich was extremely motivated to write this symphony. He was well aware of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and had denounced it before. He wrote himself: “In the Thirteenth Symphony I dealt with the problem of civic, precisely ‘civic’ morality.” About Yevtushenko’s poem he said he liked its “indisputable humaneness”. He ended up defending both the poet for his poem and himself for having decided to set the poem to music. Needless to say that Shostakovich sought in vain a permission to perform his symphony. He had intended to have the premiere performed in Kiev but the leadership of the Ukrainian Communist Party was adamant. Any performance of Yevtushenko’s poem would be categorically forbidden.

Shostakovich tried a second time to secure a performance – this time in Moscow. While party officials were reserved, the premiere on December 18, 1962 was much anticipated by the public and widely applauded. The official press mostly chose to remain silent about it. The authorities forced Yevtushenko to change the poem in a way that it would also reflect the idea that Russians suffered along with Ukrainians in Babi Yar. Today one would call that alternative facts. The music needed no change though an unsigned editorial in a Soviet newspaper criticized an unnamed composer for writing “a symphony about our reality, basing it chiefly on gloomy, evil, sarcastic-parodistic […] images”.

Babi Yar, anti-Antisemitism, Shostakovich – why is this important? Because I see widespread discrimination and abuse under the pretext of religion, sex or ethnic identity in our times. Artists have an important part to play in any democratic society: to critically reflect political developments. Music is not exclusively meant to be enjoyed. It also has the moral obligation to ask questions, to seek truth and justice. Yevtushenko’s poem and Shostakovich music have a political message that hasn’t lost any of its relevance today. We had better listen.

© Charles Thibo

Editor’s note:

The Hamburg based Institute for Social Research is the depository of a collection of 29 documentary pictures from the mass killing at Babi Yar. The pictures were shot by Johannes Hähle, a German soldier belonging to a propaganda unit (Propaganda-Kompanie 637). A short introduction to the collection (in German) is available here.

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de Chareli

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3 thoughts on “Mass Murder and a Lesson in Morality”

  1. I’m glad I may have contributed a little to your discovery. I think Shostakovich was an exceptional composer trying to maintain his creativity and mental sanity while he lived under exceptional conditions. His initial belief in Communism and the building of a better world may be attributed to youthful enthusiasm and forgiven. By the beginning of WW 2 he certainly had lost his illusions about the Societ Union while many intellectuals in Western Europe maintained them until the late 60s.

    1. Oh, that’s interesting and it gives you very special approach to the symphony then. Do you like this specific symphony then?

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