Shostakovich 4,7, and 11...Chicago, We Don't Have a Problem

This season in Chicago features Shostakovich symphonies as indicated above. The 11th will be handled by the Civic.

A plea to my readers, and especially my students who are preparing for these concerts: Please forget Volkov, however entertaining a read his book might be. It’s clearly, indisputably a fraud, as conclusively proven by Laurel Fay in The Shostakovich Casebook with absolutely impeccable integrity and academic bona fides. I don’t see how you can get around it. (and I don’t see why you would want to.) If you can’t trust Volkov’s integrity, and you cannot, how can you trust anything he says?

Years ago, when I included Russian masters in my curriculuum, I used Volkov because of ignorance; I’m embarassed, and for once, sincerely. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’m weeping uncontrollably as I write this. If you put your finger up to your monitor screen, you will notice that it is damp. Get the Shostakovich Casebook, the Glikman letters, the Wilson bio, or Taruskin’s Defining Russia Musically; you’ll be doing yourself a favor. I was gonna throw out the Volkov, but I decided to keep it as a reminder of my folly. But I don’t put it with my Shosty books, it doesn’t belong there. I put it with my pulp crime novels because my wife won’t let me defile her Harlequin romances with its presence.

I’m given to jaw-dropping hyperbole, but I’m serious on this one. 

The Fourth, Seventh, and Eleventh are each the greatest symphonic achievement ever in at least one aspect.

1. The Fourth has the greatest coda in symphonic history. A catastrophe; A shrieking cry of agony in the shape of a fractured chorale followed by numbness. And the uncanny happens in the finale…as you’re listening to the farrago of carnival or pop tunes following the impressive marcia funebre that launches the finale, you sense inevitably, and with palpable unease, the catastrophe that’s headed your way. The first time, every time you hear it. In the finale of the Sixth Symphony, you correctly sence that you’ll have fun carnival stuff all the way to the end.

2. The first movement of the Seventh is the greatest battle depiction ever. Nazis invading? Probably. Stalin’s threat to freedom and humanity? I sure ain’t convinced. But who cares. You could think of it as the Iraq war or the Peloponnesian war for all I care. It’s great symphonic writing: dynamic, taut, intense, masterfully constructed. You, know, its scheme isn’t all that far off the 1812 overture. Russian Hymn, Battle, and Apotheosis, although here you have to wait for the finale for the apotheosis.

3. Was it Stravinsky who said “music is the best means we have for digesting time.” or was it Auden? I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have been Stravinsky’s alter-Igor Robert Craft. Welcome to the Eleventh. It is the greatest long-range symphonic construction in time that we have. The seventh symphonies of Beethoven and Sibelius may come close, but here you have an uninterrupted hour of absolutely perfect pacing. The year 1905? The crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956? Whatever. How about a great symphony that will outlast associations with either.