“Shostakovich captivates as a person and as a musician”

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) is a richly varied, fascinating composer. He lived and worked in structural uncertainty, struggled with mixed and unpredictable reactions from public and government, but remained in Russia against all odds. And above all he was a human being with a warm family and inspiring friendships. Festival 20∙21, which starts on Monday 27 September in Leuven, devotes a theme day to the friendship between Shostakovich and his British colleague Benjamin Britten, who only understood each other in the language of music. An interview with Pieter Bergé (54), artistic director of the festival.

By Wynold Verweij

Bergé: “Shostakovich is fascinating in several ways. The first way has little to do with his music. He was an artist who lived and survived in extremely thankless circumstances, namely the communist regime in the Soviet Union. This guaranteed a total uncertainty about where your works of art would take you, to fame or to ruin. That tension between the artistic, political and social dimension is very fascinating. Then, of course, there is the highly charged reception history of Shostakovich as a person. Until his death in 1975 he was considered worldwide to be an adept of the communist regime. Then in 1979 there was Solomon Volkov’s famous book Testimony, in which that image is turned on its head and Shostakovich is suddenly presented as the great secret dissident of the communist regime. Especially disconcerting is the ensuing discussion, a textbook example of polarisation. On the one hand, a group of musicologists advocated a revisionist view (“Shostakovich was a dissident”), while on the other hand, others fiercely defended an anti-revisionist view (“Shostakovich was an adept of communism”). It’s remarkable, and even disturbing, that the whole polemic consists of an improbable mixture of arguments and emotions. There are so many errors, lies, false rhetoric, false arguments, etcetera, that one cannot remain indifferent to them. Historical science as a discipline is shaking on its foundations here.
Then of course there is the music itself. My appreciation of Shostakovich’s music is also very polarized. Some works, such as the last symphonies and chamber music, I find truly unparalleled; others, such as the opening movement from the famous Leningrad Symphony, I find unbearable. For myself, there are few composers with whom I experience such a wide spread in personal appreciation.”

It is striking that Shostakovich chose to remain in the Soviet Union at all costs while many of his colleagues emigrated. What consequences did this decision have for his compositional career?

“There is no denying that within the Russian culture of the twentieth century, no composer has had such an impact as Shostakovich. He is also one of the few Russian composers who chose to remain in the Soviet Union throughout his career, which is intriguing in itself. After all, why does someone want to stay in a culture that has frequently discredited and endangered him? Where does this attachment come from? It is also remarkable that Shostakovich was able to develop so much as a composer within all these restrictions. To make this possible, Shostakovich did make constant efforts to stay under the radar, although this was not always possible. It was also very difficult for an artist to assess what was possible and what was not. It was not always easy to draw a line in what the regime approved or disapproved of. There was a kind of arbitrariness to it. But this arbitrariness is of course an enormous instrument of power; as long as you don’t know what you are doing wrong, it is difficult to be creative. An element that plays in that context and is also very fascinating is Shostakovich’s use of irony and quotes. I like that very much myself, especially when the irony is refined. That quiet, sneaky but oh so painful laugh.”

Do you think Shostakovich is a martyr or a pragmatist who tried to make the best of it?

“The last thing I want to do is go along with that polarization. Polarization rarely leads to nuanced insights. What the whole controversy also fails to take into account, in my opinion, is the elemental humanity of a figure like Shostakovich. He was a man who put himself on anything but a pedestal, a family man, concerned about his children, concerned about his family, not at all keen on great success. He was, in fact, shy of the public. That is the human aspect in which the artistic element nestles. The same artistic element which, of course, is based on certain moral values that were brutally suppressed in the Soviet Union in which he lived. And there is always this balancing act of: how can you defend your values? Through music, certainly also through the use of text, in a way that actually transcends the concrete situation in such a way that you can still be safeguarded from the suspicion that you are criticizing the regime itself. Because we shouldn’t be faint-hearted about it: an explicit criticism of the regime then was suicide. It actually takes a lot of courage to give indirect criticism. Such criticism is certainly there, and sometimes Shostakovich goes to daring lengths to do so, especially in the works in which text is used.”

This is also discussed in your festival essay ‘The lies and the laughter’. Will the true Shostakovich only emerge when the decree on the assessment of composers is lifted in 1958?

“In that context, I find the quote with which I conclude my essay incredibly moving. When the decree was announced, Shostakovich invited the Rostropovichs for a drink in honour of their regained cultural freedom. In her autobiography, Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich’s wife, describes how the composer walked around nervously all the time, sat down at the piano from time to time and began to sing the dogmas of Stalinist cultural policy to himself to a silly tune. She describes Shostakovich as a closed volcano that could burst at any moment. These and many other testimonies also reveal his constant tristesse, a weariness and even a certain reluctance to live life to the end.”

The theme day on October 10 will focus on the late Shostakovich. Why?

“There are two elements. The first element is that I really like those later works because they often have an emaciated character. He shows an enormous ability to go very deep with few notes. The late string quartets are perhaps the most extreme examples of that, with all those slow movements, few notes, long tones. I find that very moving and tranquil. A second element is that on this theme I wanted to zoom in on the friendship between Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. That friendship only began to develop in the 1960s, so in any case you are talking about the late works of both Britten and Shostakovich. I find this friendship intriguing. Perhaps it has to do with certain affinities. For instance, both composers spent their entire lives searching for a musical language in which they could maintain contact with their audience and still be innovative. That was not always so obvious in the 20th century with its sometimes scorching modernism. These two composers kept looking for a musical language that was original on the one hand, yet not alienating on the other.”

The friendship between Beethoven and Haydn is often seen as opportunistic. What does the friendship between Shostakovich and Britten stand for?

“Britten didn’t speak Russian and Shostakovich didn’t know a word of English. So they couldn’t converse with each other. Hence the title of the theme day: friendship without words. The friendship must have been a kind of intuitive friendship, through music. A beautiful role is played by the artist couple Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya, the cellist, pianist, conductor and great soprano, who, unlike Shostakovich, had a great international career, even in the West. They acted as interpreters between Britten and Shostakovich. But still, it was mainly about the music. Shostakovich loved Britten’s War Requiem. This work haunted him until the end of his life and clearly also inspired him to write the Fourteenth Symphony. This symphony (which is actually more of a song cycle) is a cross-pollination between Das Lied von der Erde, the War Requiem and Shostakovich himself. Death is the central theme and the work is dedicated to Britten. That’s saying something.”

I’m looking forward to the Eighth String Quartet. Why is that quartet called autobiographical?

“The Eighth String Quartet is included in the program in a concert that actually revolves around the Third String Quartet by Schnittke, also a Russian who is often seen as a kind of heir to Shostakovich. That third quartet begins with a triple quotation: one from Lassus’ Stabat Mater, one from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and finally the famous D-S-C-H motif (the letters represent the note names) that Shostakovich used a lot but nowhere as exhaustively as in his eighth quartet. In this concert (on 20 October) we will first perform these three pieces and then Schnittke. In this way we will present to the audience the material which Schnittke will then use in his own piece. The fact that Schnittke uses the D-S-C-H motif is of course no coincidence. It places him in a tradition. But it is indeed true that Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet is known to be autobiographical. Shostakovich himself gave cause for this. He wrote the piece at a time when he was succumbing to pressure to join the Communist Party, which led to his lamentable mental state. According to some sources he also seriously considered quitting life at that time. It is in this context that this string quartet was written. Friends suggest that he said he had written an in memoriam for himself, since he assumed that no one else would do it for him. But officially the quartet is dedicated to the victims of fascism and the war. In a way he was himself, of course.”

In your essay, you call “Rajok” a farce. Shouldn’t we take it seriously?

“As a work of art you have to put that piece into perspective of course, it’s not great music and it’s certainly not great text and it does indeed come across as a farce. It’s even almost student-like at times. But the reason why I paid a lot of attention to it is because it is one of the few documents in which Shostakovich himself speaks explicitly about his vision of Soviet cultural policy. I don’t really understand why the work is not better known, not as a piece of music but as an ego document. He worked on it for 20 years in total, with long intervals of course. So the work haunted him in one way or another. If it was a whim, then it was in any case a recurring one. Even though the tone of the work is obviously very light, the implications of writing such a work at that time and running the risk of the work coming out were huge, especially in 1948. The difficulty with performing that work lies in the great distance we have from that particular period and context. Au fond is Rajok a thoroughly tragic piece. The tragedy consists of a composer’s inability to be who he would like to be as a composer, coupled with the refusal to escape that situation. Shostakovich had several opportunities to leave the Soviet Union. He opted, as it were, for a ‘voluntary’ imprisonment and for ways to survive in it without being completely silenced. That makes this music, in all its humour and light-heartedness, especially tragic.”

Just to the organization of the festival. What restrictions did you have to take into account?

“The main limitation we face is the absence of decent concert halls. That creates a lot of complications but also rules out certain repertoires, especially for large ensembles. The fact that we are able to perform Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony has everything to do with the fact that Shostakovich only provides strings and percussion. This restriction naturally stimulates creativity. In recent years, for example, we have paid a great deal of attention to the culture of arrangements in the classical music tradition. Arrangements have been around for a long time, and their purpose is often to allow music for larger ensembles to be performed in more modest contexts. For example, this year the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien is playing arrangements of major works by Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg. And Liebrecht Vanbeckevoort and Severin von Eckardstein will be performing Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique, actually in an arrangement for two pianos by … Shostakovich! But then again, we don’t work from limitations, of course, but rather from abundance. What is important to the festival is that, year after year, we are able to present the music of the twentieth century in an improbable diversity. In doing so, we want to continue to challenge the idea that twentieth-century music is by definition difficult, inaccessible and elitist. That is actually our main motivation: to open up as much music as possible, while creating the most favourable context for it to be fully received. That is also the reason why we attach so much importance to the structure and the framework of our concerts. On the theme day, for example, each piece is introduced by a very short documentary film that places the work in its original setting and thus draws the listener into its historical and cultural context. This has an enormous, almost always positive impact on the intensity of the listener’s experience. In the future, we want to focus even more on this. Festival 20∙21 is always looking for depth. Our first concern is not to have more audience, but to involve our audience even more intensely in the music. I myself do not believe in the omnipresent dogma of ‘growth’. Growth should not be the starting point, but rather the consequence of a consistent and thorough artistic vision. Just like Britten and Shostakovich, Festival 20∙21 has a constant concern for the audience. This concern is not aimed at confirming the known, but rather at bringing the unknown closer to the audience. We want an audience of discoverers. That is our raison d’être.”

  • WHAT: Festival 20∙21
  • TICKETS AND INFO: http://www.festival2021.be
  • THEMADAY: Shostakovich and Britten, Sunday October 10, Stadsschouwburg/30CC, 11h00-20h00
  • ESSAY: Pieter Bergé, De leugens en de schaterlach – Shostakovich’s geheime Stalin satire, Sterck & De Vreese, € 19.95

  • PHOTO: Wynold Verweij

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