Solomon Volkov, best known for his role in assembling Shostakovich’s memoirs, Testimony, once described him as the second (Mussorgsky being the first) great “yurodivy” composer. Volkov defines the yurodivy as follows-
“The yurodivy is a Russian religious phenomenon, which even cautious Soviet scholars call a national trait. There is no word in any other language which can precisely convey the meaning of the Russian word yurodivy, with its many historical and historical overtones.
“The yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells the world about his insights in a paradoxical way, in code. He plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and individualist… but he sets strict limitations, rules and taboos for himself.”
The yurodivy becomes empowered to speak truth to power in a way that no one else can by doing so indirectly, and by creating a persona that is completely unthreatening by virtue of being willfully naïve, absurd, deferential or self-deprecating.
Where I think Volkov has it wrong is in labeling Mussorgsky as the first yurodivy composer, and in labeling the yurodivy as a uniquely Russian phenomenon.
Haydn was the first.
“Stepping out onto the road of yurodstvo, Shostakovich relinquished all responsibility for anything he said: nothing meant what it seemed to, not the most exalted and beautiful words. The pronouncement of familiar truths turned out to be mockery; conversely, mockery often contained tragic truth.”
It’s well known that Shostakovich scholarship remains one of the most contentious fields of musicology, in large part due to the fact that many Western writers can’t seem to get past the fact that Shostakovich often said things he didn’t mean. His description of the 5th Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism” is, ridiculously, taken at face value, leading to the outrageous slander of him as “Soviet Russia’s most loyal son.” Even such a patently absurd assessment of a work as perfect as the 10th Symphony by its composer as “too long in some places, too short in others,” is taken at face value.
If you are reading this with hope in your heart that this muddle will be cleared up in our lifetimes, I caution you to consider the case of the original yurodivy composer, Josef Haydn. Just this week, I came across the following in a review of several recent Haydn biographies-
“His place in the pantheon may be assured but even ardent admirers would not put him on a par with Mozart and Beethoven, younger contemporaries he knew well. “His music, though beautifully melodious and impeccably constructed, lacks the former’s sublime effortlessness and the latter’s defiant romanticism. Unlike them, there was nothing remotely fatalistic or mysterious about his profile. He was no Wunderkind. He was employed for 48 of his 77 years by the wealthy Esterházys, a Hungarian aristocratic family, and he lived and died a Kapellmeister – a word that has condescending overtones, signifying a dutiful role in the order of things, always subservient to a patron or institution.”
If Shostakovich’s complex, fraught and adversarial relationship with the authorities, combined with his need to speak in code in order to speak freely and critically has led to a profound misunderstanding (or willful mis-representation) of him as a loyal son, then Haydn’s complex relationship with the Esterhazys has led to a similar misconception of him as, among other things, a naif, a bumpkin, a servant, a Kapellmeister whose musical horizons were limited by his lack of exposure to the great metropolitan centres of Europe. For Haydn, the position at Esterhaza offered a prize no composer could resist- a chance to build and conduct the greatest orchestra ever assembled. An orchestra with the primary mission of performing his music under his leadership. The greatest orchestra ever assembled? Hyperbole? Go listen to the 72nd Symphony, with it’s ferocious virtuoso writing for every principal player in the orchestra, including horn writing that still makes modern virtuosi tremble at the knees. If you’re busy, just listen to the variation for solo double bass (and notice how a modern virtuoso struggles with intonation) to get a sense of the standard of this orchestra. Of course, other so-called “court” composers or those associated with churches (J. S. Bach, for instance) had had success in building groups uniquely suited to perform their music at the highest level, but no one before or since managed it as well as Haydn, or for so long. Since his death, virtually no composer has managed it at all, with the possible exception of Pierre Boulez, who at least managed to get France to build him IRCAM and fund the Ensemble Intercontemporain. For a man described in the same article as “as the very personification of Enlightenment man: rational, scholarly, tolerant, socially and intellectually progressive” to survive in the bosom of the aristocracy for so many decades was no easy task. He had to appear every bit the humble servant, lest he be seen as an upstart. He could not let his own fame eclipse that of his employer. And criticism, when it came, had to be addressed in code.
The famous story of the Farewell symphony, if true, is one of many examples of Haydn couching a serious criticism in the form of a joke. However, as with the music of Shostakovich 200 years later, the joke is only the most basic and simplistic level on which the music functions. That very movement, in which the players leave the stage is much more than a simple plea to start vacation. It is a deeply moving meditation on death and loss, coming at the culmination of one of Haydn’s most daring and dramatic works. The movement itself begins in coiled fury, which soon explodes into rage, fury that is never resolved or reconciled, only pushed to the side. Even when the last candle is blown out, that unresolved tension hangs in the air as all those empy chairs fade into darkness. Volkov was right: “mockery often contained tragic truth…”
Again and again in Haydn we see that which appears to be naïve prove to be sophisticated, that which appears innocent prove to be worldly, that which appears to be mockery proves to be tragic truth.
The Finale of Haydn’s Symphony no. 92 is a perfect example of Haydn’s unique ability to use the character of a movement’s material to conceal the the character of the movement. In this case, the movement begins with simple hilarity, a tune that sounds so fresh from the country that you can all but smell the barnyard. However, this country tune will soon be subject to some of the most extraordinary contrapuntal working out of any theme in musical history. When the opening finall returns it sounds full of mischief as the listener finally realizes that this naïve theme is not what it seems.
We’ve long known that Haydn was not a simpleton- his shrewd business sense, his love of wine, his way with women and his sophistication in dealing with the aristocracy are all well documented. Haydn knew that there was nothing to be gained by announcing himself to the world as a revoltionary in words when he could so in music. It’s a pity more musicians and writers on music haven’t listened to the music more carefully.
If you are still skeptical, go and listen to Il Distratto, the 60th Symphony. If there was ever a work by an “anarchist and individualist,” this is it.