From Europe with Acid

shostakovich2
Dmitry Shostakovich.

Two days ago I gave you an impromptu on the pupil. Today I will give you one on the master! Yesterday Luxembourg celebrated the Day of Europe, a brand new banking holiday, courtesy of our Socialist coalition party, the very party claiming that Luxembourg needs to defend its competitiveness by increasing the flexibility of its work force. Raising profits by working less – the magic formula! Luxembourg’s economy obeys revolutionary new rules.

“Let’s make it happen!” is written across the banner of the government’s nation branding effort. Well, the Socialists made it happen, the Day of Europe, alright. They delivered what they had promised. But is there anything to celebrate? The never-ending drama of Brexit? The rise of nationalism? The tragedy of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea? The lack of action against climate change? The timid response towards Russia’s aggressive stance? The luke-warm response to US blows against multilateralism? What possibly could I have celebrated yesterday?

But there’s Dmitry Shostakovich. Yesterday evening I enjoyed a recital with Yefim Bronfman (piano) and Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano) at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg. And they made me discover a beautifully acerbic song cycle called “Satiri” (Satires, op. 109). In 1960 Shostakovich set to music five poems written by Sasha Chorny. The work was enthusiastically greeted by the Soviet audience at the premiere and – communisme oblige! – immediately censored by Soviet authorities. No more oublic performance, no recording, ничего. They had their reasons.

“Spring’s Awakening” and “The Descendants” can both be interpreted as an indictment of the Soviet system, built on brutal force, inconsistent theories, blatant lies and unaccounted political mistakes. Chorny wrote these verses against the backdrop of the revolution of 1907 and the miserable living conditions in Russia during the last days of the czar. “The Misunderstanding” appears to depict the error of judgment of a young man vis-à-vis a young lady, but it can easily be read as an allegory on the rapidly changing truths in the Soviet Union. What was true yesterday, is not necessarily true today.

In the “Kreutzer Sonata” Chorny finally lets an intellectual meet a proletarian girl. The man is inflamed by the girl’s promising appearance and claims that the two of them are made to understand each other. Really? The music says something very different. Shostakovich opens his song cycle with the poem “To a Critic” and for good reason. One should not take everything at face value. He was a cautious man and added the subtitle “Pictures of the Past” to the cycle’s main title “Satiri”. But of course everybody knew that the past and the present often present parallels in politics.

The Homo Sovieticus developed over the decades the ability to read between the lines of the editorials in the “Pravda” and comrade Stalin’s speeches. Shostakovich’s message too was understood and widely embraced. The instrumental part alone is full of subtle irony, and I am infinitely grateful to him for that. Without subtle irony I would find the present state of Europe unbearable.

If you feel like having a dose of satire on a Friday morning, I suggest you listen to the recording of Yuri Serov and Victoria Evtodieva. It won’t hurt too much. Honestly.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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