Sunday, May 02, 2010

Dmitri Shostakovich--5th Symphony

From Another Country, Book II, Chap. 3:

"The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was on his record player; the play, Happy Hunting Ground, lay open on his bed, under his night light...A brief silence fell, and her we resounded more insistently than the drums of Shostakovich."

(I apologize for forever bringing up old stories from college and other scenes long past, but unfortunately the years since I was about twenty-seven have not yielded as many of the kinds of anecdotes that are useful for the pretensions of this site)

I was at a party in college once when a man with whom I had never spoken before began explaining to me about that momentous day in 1908 or 1909 or maybe even 1910 when Gustave Mahler, having completed one of his symphonies--the 5th? the 7th?--announced that the tonal order on which Western classical music had been based for centuries was exhausted, and that epoch of musical history closed, with which, remarkably, everyone of any importance in the European musical culture of the day seemed to recognize and agree at once, and all further composition in the established mode ceased from the instant of Mahler's proclamation forward. This explanation of a phenomenon both undeniable and to the untutored highly mysterious, was immediately pleasing to me, being both so neat and evidently uncontroversial, and it has remained with me all these years though I have never even looked into it to confirm that it is true.

I mention this because while what I and the class of people of whom I am respresentative think of as classical music more or less ceased all over Europe right around 1910, a definite variety of it continued in Russia well into the middle of the century, highlighted by the celebrated composers Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who certainly sound classical and serious to the untrained ear, combined with a romantic/sentimental streak that is especially pleasing to the same. I like all these guys, whom I equate as well in spirit with the Impressionist composers Debussy and Satie--in classical music I have a tendency at times to tilt towards the French/Russian axis in my deepest darkest preferences rather than the German/Italian, which I think is considered bad form (in another college incident my volunteering the information of a certain fondness for Debussy that I thought would be acceptable was swatted down with an incredulous laugh at such naked, innocent idiocy and the observation that "the French are good at many things; music is not one of them"). This makes it sound though as if I am wholly unaffected by Strauss and Puccini and B/B/M and all those fellows, which is not the case either. The quality of the emotion one feels from some of the French and Russian music, because it is apparently less general than that of Bach or Mozart, on the extent of whose greatness everyone is more or less in agreement, is often of a more interesting nature depending on the circumstances, I think.

Here is another famous Shostakovich piece that I like. Perhaps it is derivative, not much of originality in it. I wouldn't really be able to tell. I don't have any instinctive feel for what the various forms of music mean. I think a piece of music good if it calls some kind of dream-image, usually a meadow, or a hill, or a small cluster of trees, a sky, a cloud, sometimes a pretty girl, movements, in rare instances something abstract will be summoned, a remembrance of the intense nature of youthful hope, or belief. None of these things expresses what exactly is going on when a cloud or a hill or a long forgotten memory are summoned to the imagination by the vibration of a few piano keys....

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