Shostakovich and the art of impassioned BS

The greatest music festival in the world, the BBC Proms, got under way on Friday evening with a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jiri Behlolavek (who I assisted at the NSO a few years back). The major work on the program was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony- an easy choice for opening night of the proms in the 100th anniversary of his birth. Cards on the table- I’ve known and loved this piece for literally my entire life since I first heard it as a little kid, and I’ve been carrying around the idea of either a book on it, or a radio series for a long time (albeit not since I was a kid). Watch this space for more- one of these days I’ll get the whole thing done.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that, musical questions aside, no other composer (and no other work by this composer) inspires so much discussion. Even more interesting is that so much discussion of Shostakovich’s music takes place almost entirely in the world of impassioned BS. No wonder I’m getting involved in the discussion- conductors are generally held to be the world’s leading practicioners of BS. Have a look herehere and here for some examples of discussions among music lovers about his music. What other major composer could inspire a whole discussion of his alleged banality? Why is it that everyone who’s heard the 5th even twice think they know, based on listening to it, what the right and wrong tempos are? Did not the dead guy know? Does not the composer’s point of view on a tempo matter a bit more than Roger’s from Shrewesbury or Maeastro _____________ from the New Appleton International Philharmonic? Think how the poor composer would feel to hear his music played twice as fast as he wrote it…

In a way I think this is an interesting, even positive, phenomenon. No composer so close to our own time (he only died in 1975) holds so great a place in the repertoire. He functions as (and is) a member of the “pantheon,” just like Mahler, Brahms and Beethoven, but he is close enough to our own lives to still be human, and therefore to be discussed as more fallible, controversial and, maybe, interesting. Also, the fact that he lived in an age of doubletalk makes it harder for us to easily define his true musical aims. Any of his statements, as well as those of his colleagues, rivals, friends, family and contemporaries, must be carefully sifted through, and the honest commentary separated from the words people spoke to get ahead, to please, to survive or to undermine.

Any performer’s realization of a great piece of music will always be somewhat subjective, and music would die if that weren’t the case. Every performance of a piece, no matter how familiar, no matter how meticulously notated, will always be different. Still, just because a score can’t (and shouldn’t) tell us everything about a piece, doesn’t mean that it can’t tell us anything about a piece. Perhaps a good measuring stick of a faithful, honest interpretation is that it is one in which the performer tries to take into account and bring to life everything that is in the score. That’s not the same thing a being enslaved to a blindly mechanistic, slavishly pedantic reading of the score- that approach, again, is death to music.

Sadly, whether its Shostakovich, Nono or Beethoven, musicians, critics and listeners all tend to think that somehow, we have the right to disregard some of the composer’s ideas (usually dynamics, articulations and tempi) in exchange for elevating others (notes, beautiful notes, we love their notes!) to the status of treasures of humanity.

The problem with this approach is that it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding about how most western composers since Bach wrote. A composer like Beethoven or Shostakovich does not sit at the piano like Don Music, looking for a note. We forget that both of them, and most (but not all) other composers write music at a desk, in silence. Nonetheless, the western compositional tradition has always emphasised creating music that was unified and organic. In Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, it is not a coincidence that the last note played outside of the tonic triad (D minor in the first movement, D Major in the finale) in the whole symphony (b-flat, 2 bars before 134 in the last movement) is also the first note played outside of the tonic in the first movement. It is not a coincidence that the perfect fourth in the timpani that ends the symphony  (there are 39 repetitions of the A to D in the timp including the incomplete ones at ends of phrases), is the same notes in the same register that accompany the first long melody in the work (starting in the fourth bar). Likewise, it is not just a fluke that the first and last tempo markings of the first movement are almost the same, except that the first is in eighth notes  and slightly slower (Eighth= 72) than  the last , which is slightly faster and is in quarters (Quarter = 42, which would be the same as eighth=84), while the first and last tempi of the last movement are almost the same except that the first is in quarters (Quarter= 88) and slightly slower than the last (Eighth= 188, which would be the same as  quarter=94) with is in eighths and is slightly faster.

The same emotional voyage expressed through the development of thematic ideas is reflected through tempi.
I’ve only scratched the top of the shrink-wrap that covers the surface of the form of this piece. Trust me, nothing in this symphony is random, almost every single note, every dynamic, every tempo change, every contrapuntal entrance, every touch of orchestration can be seen to be related to his overall design.

Of course, Shostakovich himself was a performer, and he would never have expected a real musician just to turn on the metronome and hack through the piece and call it a faithful performance. However, surely we ought to think carefully when disregarding one instruction, as normally, one thing ignored means many others lost. Let’s look at one last example. People will tell you that there is an ongoing argument about the final tempo of the Fifth Symphony (figure 131 to the end). They’re wrong. There is no argument- some people just do not only at the wrong tempo, but in the wrong meter.

If you do the coda of the last movement twice as fast as the opening, logic tells us you should do the coda of the first movement twice as fast also. Nevertheless, forget the last tempo, back up to figure 121. Many conductors take this in a rather brisk “2,” but Shostakovich’s metronome marking is Quarter= 100-108, that is to say in four, and slower than a normal march. Perhaps Maestro Intwo just thinks it is a little dull at the slower tempo, perhaps he thinks it should feel more like a triumphant, peppy march, or maybe they have another reason (they’ve always heard it in two and fast)? Maybe they think the metronome marking is wrong, and that Shostakovich clearly didn’t mean the slower tempo?

However, there is more than just the metronome marking to go by. First, the melody, first played by the clarinet and bassoons from the pickup to the 5th bar never has a staccato marking on it, in the first four notes each have lines or tenuto markings over them. Then at Figure 123, the counter melody in the oboes and clarinets is not marked staccato, as it is usually played. Instead, he marks non marcato, that is each note connected and not over-articulated, an effect that is impossible at the faster tempo. Also at 123, he marks the new statement of the theme with the word tenuto. Then at figure 123, he has the violins take over the counter theme, again, clearly marked tenuto.

Also note what he doesn’t mark. Through this entire section of the piece, he never marks a dot, never a wedge, never a breath mark, never uses the word staccato, never uses an > or a sfz, never indicates a marcato. How then can a professional conductor tell the woodwinds to play all the eighths at fig 123 staccato? How can they start the theme with a staccato pick-up and separate each chord?

Looking ahead, the next section, the ¾ at 128 is marked at Quarter= 116. Okay, so you don’t have to be at exactly 116, but it seems clear he wants it in the same pulse unit (quarters) but slightly faster (116 versus 100). If the conductor has been cruising along at half=84, which would be the same as quarter=168, that means the new tempo is slower and in a different pulse unit. Wrong on all counts.

So for those of you at home who love, or hate Shostakovich and have a score floating around the house or felt like a trip to the library, I offer you a little homework assignment. Pick one thing in the piece that you’ve always heard or preferred differently than the way it’s written in the score. Maybe you’ve always heard the opening of the second movement played entirely with short notes? But Shostakovich doesn’t mark dots, or use the word staccato. He doesn’t even call the movement a scherzo (plenty of others do). Accept for a moment that this was a conscious decision on his part (It was. Don’t let anyone tell you he would have assumed it would be played short- he puts a dot on the first 32nd note of the symphony, surely he REALLY could have assumed it would be short ). Why? Is there a relationship between this articulation marking and the tempo marking (quarter=138 is not that fast)? Does it mean anything that he uses the quarter as a pulse unit instead of the bar, as Beethoven almost always would have? In fact, if you play the articulation he asked for at the tempo he wrote, it changes the whole character of the movement, and therefore the whole symphony. When the theme comes back pizzicato a the da capo it forms a sort of macabre mirror with the heavy, connected opening. Just as in the finale, his articulation fits his tempo, which tells us,again that this is music conceived as an integrated and organic whole, and the closer our performance gets to that spirit, the closer we are to the truth of the music.

Wait, there I go again. Seriously, pick any detail, and see what it tells you. Other than a few obvious misprints, I think you’ll be amazed at what you discover.

Updates Since Original Posting-

Click here for an alternative point of view.

Click here for an interesting piece in the Guardian

Click here for an interesting follow-up to the Guardian in Overgrown Path

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Shostakovich and the art of impassioned BS”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » “An American in Paris” in the age of the freedom fry

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