Shostakovich at 100

I was almost content to let the 100th birthday of Shostakovich pass without comment.

Just think, though….

Already, just a few years after his death, we’re beginning to see his body of work recognized as the single most important contribution to Russian culture and cultural history in the 20th Century. The old admonition that “nobody remembers who the Prime Minister of Bavaria was when Beethoven was writing his 9th Symphony” is already beginning to ring true for Shostakovich. After all, who has had a more profound impact on today’s world, Napoleon or Beethoven?

For all his killing, Napoleon never succeeded in redrawing the map of Europe in any lasting way. His importance and his influence have long since faded.

Likewise, even with the deaths of tens of millions on his hands, Stalin is now no more than an irrelevant and discredited petty dictator. His grand program to remake the world has largely faded from our consciousness as a nightmare does on waking.

Murder is a feeble tool, whether for building empires or remaking societies.

I recently heard the commentator Keith Olberman’s  powerful commentary on America’s obscene failure to create a meaningful monument to the dead of September 11, 2001 even five years later.  He’s right, of course, but should we really entrust mere politicians with the memory of the lost?

Do we need our leaders and teachers to tell us when to grieve and how to mourn? Are governments really credible agents of remembrance?

Shostakovich showed us, and all those that come after us, that we don’t need the might of governments, mountains of money, or even the blessing of our leaders, to bear witness, to speak in memory of the dead and the bereaved, to remember, or even to condemn those who cause suffering and loss. After all, far too often it is our governments and our leaders who are the cause of that suffering and loss. One human being can sit in a room and put notes on paper and begin to heal that which seemed beyond healing.

Sometimes, people can’t wait for memorials to be built. We can’t wait for committees and politicians to listen, to absorb and to act. Sometimes it is the lonely artist who must speak for the nation, without permission or reward.

There is no need to canonize Shostakovich. We don’t need him to be a martyr- a chain-smoking, vodka-swilling, football-loving, depressive, sarcastic, conflict-avoidant musical genius will do fine.

Accept then that this mere man, this imperfect being could show us so great an example.

Can we not do better in our own times?

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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