Friday, October 25, 2019

Enemy of the People

Dmitri Shostakovich has to be one of the most endangered composers in history, and certainly the most famous of them. While other well-known composers were getting out of Russia in 1917, like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev (who inexplicably returned later), Igor Stravinsky, and a host of others less famous, Shostakovitch stayed. He doesn't seem to have considered leaving.

Shostakovich managed to have a decorated career. He wrote a lot of music, achieved an international reputation, and was praised for some of it in his own country. But always there was the extreme difficulty of trying to function artistically in Joseph Stalin's Russia.

This wasn't just a matter of artistic patronage. Stalin was an absolute dictator, and if he didn't like something he could have you exiled or killed. Between the Second World War and his own "purges" it is estimated that he is responsible for the deaths of about 20 million human beings.

Dmitri Shostakovich got off to a brilliant start. His First Symphony was a huge success and got him noticed internationally. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was  wildly popular for two years.

Then he had his first real taste of Joseph Stalin.

The dictator attended his opera, decided he didn't like it, and shortly afterward there appeared an article in the official state newspaper, "The Truth" called 'Muddle Instead of Music' which attacked the opera in no uncertain terms. This was in January 1936. Only 10 days later another article appeared attacking a ballet of his. The composer thought he was finished. He had become, in one of Stalin's favorite phrases, an "enemy of the people."

"I was called an enemy of the people quietly and out loud and from podiums. One paper made the following announcement of my concert: 'Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich....I was swamped with anonymous letters saying in effect that I, enemy of the people, did not have long to tread on Soviet soils, that my ass's ears would be chopped off--along with my head."

The composer believed that Stalin had written the article himself, particularly because of some of the phrases which echoed the ones that seemed forever stuck inside the dictator's head that he would repeat ad naseum and that didn't really mean anything. After all, Stalin could make up his own language, couldn't he? In any case, the article was anonymous, which meant The Party had directed it. Which meant there was no arguing. Shostakovich's friends wouldn't have anything to do with him for a while.

Yet somehow Shostakovich survived that nightmare, even though many of his friends and associates did not. One of them was his friend Meyerhold. "It's impossible to imagine now how popular Meyerhold was. Everyone knew him....And then the man disappeared, he just disappeared and that was it. As though he never existed."

Many musicians and artists disappeared in those traumatic times. Near the end of his life, the composer sat for secret interviews with a man who took notes on what Shostakovitch said, got the pages approved, and smuggled them into the west, only publishing them after the composer's death. the result was "Testimony," from which these quotations are taken. In it, the man recalls many incidents from his life and talks mostly about the people around him. And he chronicles the disappearances of so many of them.

Survival was never certain in Stalin's Russia. Holding Western ideas or being in any way critical of the party or of Stalin was sure to get you executed of course, but sometimes trying too hard to be doctrinally pure could get you in trouble as well. And sometimes what the party favored changed rapidly, and you could get caught being associated with something or someone that was no longer in favor. Some people referred to it as a lottery. One thing was sure: the moment someone disappeared you had to make sure you were in no way connected with them, and had better obliterate any traces of their friendship; correspondence, artifacts, everything. Help the state make sure they never existed.

In 1948 there was another shake-up, and Shostakovitch was again reprimanded along with several other Soviet artists. The usual accusation was that they were promoting Western ideas. They would be called "formalists" which was a deliberately meaningless word for "not Soviet enough." Stalin's whim set the tone for that.

And his whim could also lift a composer up as well as bring him down. There was a special prize for excellence in Soviet art in that period, known as the Stalin prize (naturally). Shostakovich won a few of those. His music was still periodically praised. Official denunciations and recognition could follow one another in a dizzying whirl. Once Stalin needed Shostakovich to go to America for propaganda purposes. He telephoned the composer who mentioned that he was currently officially banned so he couldn't go. Stalin acted surprised, and countermanded his censure, forcing Shostakovitch to go and help spread the fiction so many  American leftists were more than willing to swallow about how wonderful things were in the USSR.

Stalin needed artists as part of his program to mold the minds of the Soviets, just as rulers have long done. Shostakovitch was clearly one of his country's most gifted composers. But Stalin was not one to forgive errors. How did Shostakovich live through two periods of official condemnation?

A Shostakovich biography calls him a yuródivyy, a Holy Fool, one who tells the truth to the king and isn't killed, usually because his guise as a fool protects him as others are not.  Shostakovich was clearly no idiot. He did write quite a lot of movie music; this was Stalin's favorite entertainment, and it probably bought him a lot of good will, even while the composer considered it largely a waste of time. And he was known in the West, particularly during WWII, when the Soviets and the Americans fought against Hitler. The composer's Seventh Symphony became a powerful political statement against fascism--at least, that's how Stalin saw it. During the war, Soviet composers could compose music that was more morose, and get away with it, because it was assumed to represent the struggle against Germany, rather than a complaint against the system at home. These things may have helped Shostakovitch to stay alive, although we don't know just how close he may have come to a premature end.

In "Testimony" the composer displays little patience with those who think his music wasn't a protest of the Soviet system. Writing of his famous Fifth Symphony, the one written just after his first period of official denunciation, which helped rehabilitate him with the state, he writes "I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing [at the piece's conclusion] is forced, created under threat....It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.' and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear it." Many in the Soviet Union chose to hear triumph in those closing bars. They may have been idiots, but their misapprehension may have helped save the composer's life several times. In instrumental music, just what is going on, anyhow? Whose ears make that determination?

People have heard all sorts of things in the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, and have argued violently about what they have heard. If "Testimony" is both accurate in terms of the word of the writer, who did not record Shostakovich except on paper, and in terms of the memory of an old man about a past he may or may not have remembered accurately, then the picture that emerges is one of an artist who meant his music to serve as a protest, and somehow, perhaps because it was in music, and the authorities often heard acquiescence instead of anger, or felt if they kept him alive they could yet mold them to their ends, he continued to use his symphonic voice to the end.

"I know that many will not agree with me and will point out other, more noble aims of art. They'll talk about beauty, grace, and other high qualities. But you won't catch me with that bait....I've always protested harshly against this point of view and I strove for the reverse. I always wanted music to be an active force. That is the Russian tradition."

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Gloves Come Off

Louis Moreau Gottschalk didn't just take off his gloves. He TOOK OFF....HIS GLOVES. Let's let a pianist who traveled with him explain:

“It was the fashion of the time to always wear white gloves with evening dress, and his manner of taking them off, after seating himself at the piano, was often a very amusing spectacle. His deliberation, his perfect indifference to the waiting audience was thoroughly manifest, as he slowly drew them off one finger at a time, bowing and smiling meanwhile to the familiar faces in the front rows. Finally disposing of them, he would manipulate his hands until they were quite limber, then preludize until his mood prompted him to begin his selection on the programme.”

I left my white gloves home yesterday, which is just as well, as we were running behind on time and I needn't have wasted five minutes with those silly gloves. It might have been amusing, though...

Yesterday was the first of five lecture recitals in the series I'm giving for OLLI/UPITT. The subject is composers of various times and places making music in difficult conditions. Chopin was on the first half, and Gottschalk on the second. Chopin left his native Poland at 20, not realizing he would never return. A political uprising which was crushed by Russia, resulting in the basic non-existence of an independent Poland for yet another episode in their sad history, made it difficult for him to return, so he made a life in Paris among the Polish community there, living in exile, and writing music in a pianistic style all his own. He redefined national Polish dances, recreated old genres, and fostered some new ones, such as the Ballade, of which he wrote four.

There really were no rules for the Ballade: even the world, which suggests both "ballata" (a dance) and the Medieval Ballad (or narrative romance) hadn't been used as the title of a piano composition before, to say nothing of the rules of the form. In Chopin's hands, each is an adventure, the end a mystery until it unfolds before us. Four fascinating musical journeys, which pianists treat as the gold standard of their repertoire. These I played on the first half of our session.

After the intermission it was time to meet Mr. Gottschalk, of whom I have written several blogs, and recorded some of his music. Gottschalk had an interesting life, which I wanted to explore at least as much as the music. Touring on three continents before the age of air travel, assembling mass concerts with up to a thousand performers, a Southerner touring the northern United States during the Civil War, a pioneer in so many respects, introducing America to its own music and to the relatively newfangled idea of the piano recital, all while entertaining the troops, wearing out the rail lines, and trying not to get him and his pianos shot, or captured (by his own people). What a life! And he only lived to be 40.

Next week we'll be in 20th century Russia, meeting Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

There's more about Chopin and Gottschalk on the homepage this week at Also, the final days to listen to music for the concert at Trinity Cathedral before I post some Scary Organ Music for Halloween!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Composers in Exile

This is one of those weeks when I really could have used a secretary.

I am neck deep in piano music at the moment, and am taking a short break for the weekly blog. Other bits of my life are getting attention if they rise to the level of emergency squared, otherwise they can wait while I practice.

Next week begins a series of lecture concerts for the UPITT/Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. This year's ambitious theme is "Composers in Exile: Music in Adversity" and it covers a wide range of styles and periods, playing the music and telling the story of composers who for one reason or another found themselves in difficult situations and continued making their music. I feel like I'm about two months behind in preparation (having also had half-a-dozen other concerts to prepare for this summer and fall, including several I learned about as the year unfolded), yet it does feel like there is a chance this will come off after all.

This Thursday features the music of Chopin, a Pole who spent most of his life in France. He voluntarily left his country for travel, study, and international exposure as a young man, but revolution soon after made it difficult for him to return. He kept his connection to his native country alive by writing national dances: mazurkas and polonaises, which he elevated to the status of high art. However, I'll be playing his four Ballades. Instructor's prerogative!

After the intermission, we'll sample the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, an American, born in the south, who toured the northern United States during the Civil War. Gottschalk kept a diary and is a very entertaining correspondent, particularly in his entries from late June 1863 when his agent put him in central Pennsylvania and he nearly got himself mixed up in the Battle of Gettysburg.

That's just the first week! On the second, we'll look at the music of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovitch, and Prokofiev, three 20th century Russian composers who had to composer in the ambit of Joseph Stalin, the cruel dictator who could have you arrested and killed for anything (including art) which displeased him. Rachmaninoff left Russia shortly after the revolution began, never to return, Prokofiev left around the same time and actually went back to Russia in 1936, Shostakovitch never left, and despite two very public censures for his music, somehow avoided getting killed, even as many of his friends were.

From there, we'll visit music of the Baroque and Classical periods, and the music of Haydn and Scarlatti, two composers whose employment circumstances caused them to spend most of their lives in artistic isolation, and then listen to music by several women composers whose work was either ignored or sidelined because they were required to marry and put away those foolish artistic ideas. Exile from self will also for a motif as we examine the music of Robert Schumann and discuss the mental illness that drove him to attempt suicide.

In the final week, there will be a composer who spent time as a prisoner of war, another who avoided death in the French Revolution somehow, another who felt alienated from his time and place. And others, as time permits. There are so many stories. In some respects, composition has always been a challenge. It never pays the rent; most of history's successful composers earned their livings as performers or teachers, never through creative endeavors directly. But these composers faced additional hurdles which could make life a burden, and even the loss of it a distinct possibility.

It may sound a bit depressing, though there is plenty of room to consider it all a triumph of the human spirit if you like. The music will do most of the speaking, and it is diverse, giving many answers to what comes from struggles which are just as varied. Sometimes bold and dramatic, sometimes beautiful, innovative or reactionary, classical or romantic or modern; the problems, and the solutions, of human creativity are amazing to behold. For the next five weeks we'll do just that. Come along, will you?

the weekly edition of Pianonoise includes a recording of a Chopin waltz and on PianonoiseRadio music for my most recent organ recital at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh. It's all at

Friday, October 4, 2019

Somebody else's refrigerator

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, the second of two children to survive infancy. His musical talent was recognized early; soon he was touring Europe with his parents and sister. His first compositions came when he...

Are you snoring yet?

Let's try this again.

Salieri stared dully at the dagger in his right hand; then, with a cry, he thrust it into his chest and slumped forward...

I don't have this blog hooked up to any medical equipment, but if you are like most of us, your pulse quickened a bit as you read the second example. You probably wanted to keep reading it, even if I couldn't be bothered to make it sound a little less like a dime store novel.

It's not as if the first example doesn't get some readers. It's full of important information. Kind of. But the problem that remains goes to relevance. What does it matter to me (selfish being that I am) what year somebody else was born, even if he was Mozart? I see examples of this principle in action all of the time.

For instance, I learned a long time ago that most of my listeners never set foot on this website. Sites that offer searches for various composers or pieces of music will find stuff from all over the web. Then they "hotlink" to the recordings and play them from their own platform. In some cases they don't acknowledge where they got the recordings, but in others they offer a chance to visit the source. Most people don't take them up on it. They don't care where it came from, they just want the pretty sounds. A recording of Mozart is a recording of Mozart no matter where it comes from. Sometimes even the Mozart part doesn't matter, so long as it is pretty.

That explains why branding is so difficult. But there is another force at work. Information is not very exciting to most of us. It doesn't elevate the blood pressure, sharpen the senses, threaten our survival or promise quick reward. Besides, there is information and there is information.

As I type this, my wife is relating a story to a third party about something we learned yesterday while vacationing in Portland. Most of the narrative details involve the emotional reactions of the persons involved in a conflict that led to the creation of an Oregonian landmark. There are plain facts, but most of these are not a part of my wife's narrative. The story is woven out of human behavior. It is still factually correct, it is still history, but it is the kind of history that eschews names and dates in favor of feelings and desires. These are the things that swirl below the surface of each of us, and are common to everyone. Things we can relate to. Writing an opera by age 9 or a symphony at 4 or whatever is just like reading the accomplishments of somebody else's child on somebody else's refrigerator. The only thing we can remember afterward is being jealous.

When I taught a class on the movie Amadeus last year I observed that the dramatist had made a brilliant decision to see the play and then the movie through the eyes of Salieri, and his dark, brooding feelings. Had Schaffer done what most movies about composers do, which is to record the accomplishments of the composer, in chronological order, desperately trying to make up for the biographical nature of the film by making the love life as crashing as possible, Amadeus wouldn't have been half so interesting. Instead, he chooses for his protagonist someone to whom we can relate. Not because we've ever thought seriously about murdering someone (necessarily), but because Salieri's beef with God is that he doesn't think he got a fair deal. He was going to be chaste, industrious, and faithful, and God was supposed to make him the greatest composer ever. God cheated on the deal by making a loutish childish buffoon a better composer than Salieri. If you work hard you are supposed to succeed. This plainly isn't fair. Is there anybody who doesn't feel like life didn't deliver on everything they thought they had coming?

1756 is just a year. But feeling aggrieved is a basic drive. It dominates the entire inner world of huge portions of our citizenry. Even the relatively well-adjusted can't quite wriggle from its grasp.  Watching in rapt horror to see what Salieri will do next is what moves the film forward, not Mozart's next concert. It is a brilliant conceit. It is so good that Peter Schaffer can't help making it a part of the movie itself.

Mozart is trying to sell the concept of his next opera to the Emperor. Tired of operas with high-flown themes of gods and nobles, he sticks up for the common person. He says, "Who wouldn't rather hear from his hair dresser than Hercules?"

It's not just the alliteration that lands the line. It's the pitch itself. Salieri will never be Hercules.

But he makes a hell of a hair dresser.
go to to read/hear more this and every Friday.