An Emotional Struggle in a Desolated Country

Desolation. Charles Thibo

The quartet starts with an element of pain, a nervous anxiety. But Dmitry Shostakovich quickly introduces a balancing element, a comforting melody, trying to cover the repetitive pattern in a struggle for acoustic supremacy – in vain. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major (Op. 92) is one more example of the composer’s amazing talent to express emotions with maximal clarity in a few, essential bars.

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A Romance Gives Birth to Dmitry’s First Trio

Can you see it? © Charles Thibo

Shostakovich in love! Young Dmitry – he is 17 – spends the summer of 1924 on the Crimean peninsula and falls in love with Tatyana Glivenko, the daughter of an eminent Moscow philology professor. There’s nothing than love to cure a tuberculosis. He has traveled south with his sister Mariya for health reasons. Mariya is not amused by this romance and when she reports home, Shostakovich’s mother is quick to warn the young man about the pitfalls of love. Shostakovich however has his own ideas, in line with the ideology of the day. “Of course the best thing imaginable would be the total abolition of the institution of marriage, with all its fetters and constraits on love.” It would be a long and tormenting affair, they would see each other on and off, but Dmitry would not commit.

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Unearthing the Rhythmic Flow of Yiddish Poems

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Nocturnal thoughts. © Charles Thibo

Kafka is on my mind. It’s hard to escape him right now, and actually I do not want to escape him. I want to meet him, see him, listen to him, embrace him. He has become a companion dear to me, a friend for the rest of my life, just like Franz Schubert, Fanny Mendelssohn and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Kafka. The question of Jewishness and authenticity. During the winter of 1912, Kafka tried to promote in the Jewish community of Prague a band of Eastern European amateur actors with a Yiddish repertoire. He expected a certain hostility. The Jews in Prague generally despised the Jews from Russia as being uneducated, rough, even primitive. The saw their assimilation to the refined Austrian-Hungarian bourgeoisie as their supreme social achievement. Kafka however saw in Yizhak Lewi and his band an expression of authentic Jewishness, while he had much less interest in the lofty political dreams of his Zionist friends in Prague.

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Whistling in the Dark to Keep Monsters Away

Shostakovich cello sonata
The fangs of darkness. © Charles Thibo

Watch out, because they are watching you. They lurk behind every corner, ready to grab you and lock you up. They are monsters. Stealthy, cowardly, insidious. They have the power to destroy you and to make you shine. They are everywhere. Paranoid times. Gruesome times. Stalin’s evil empire. You can sing however to chase away your fears. You can whistle in the dark and hope for the danger to pass. You can be bold and show your strength by acknowledging publicly your fear. You can find allies by being true to yourself.

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