Musical War and Peace: revisiting a recent blog exchange

Article by   September 2005

At the risk of being labeled a musical snob, I venture a comment or two on one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year--Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975). He is to music what Alexander Solzhenitsyn is to Soviet literature. Finding early success with an internationally received symphony (No. 1) at 19, his career fell foul of accepted standards ten years later when Pravda severely criticized his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Thereby began twenty years of artistry aimed ostensibly at pacifying the communist regime and Stalin in particular, but now understood as filled with subtlety and irony. The War Symphonies"--Symphonies Four through Nine (he wrote fifteen in all) delve into the harrowing subject of Stalin's bloody purge on Russia and Shostakovich's musical counterattack. The fourth had to wait twenty-five years for it to be played fearing that its form would bring further criticism.

These symphonies, written between 1936 and 1945, are the composer's weapons against Stalin's rampant bloodletting. Shostakovich called them, his "tombstones." Of these six symphonies, the Fifth is the best known and the most easily accessible. I heard a live performance of it when I was a teenager. My physics teacher, who introduced me to the twentieth century music of Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich, gave me tickets to hear the Halle orchestra play in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth, Wales. The breathtaking ending of the symphony, a sustained pulsing energy rising to a climactic finish is guaranteed to excite even the near-comatose!

The Year 1905

The seventh is epic in proportion describing the siege of Leningrad. It is the eighth that is the most harrowing--the most graphic musical depiction of war that I know. Nothing can be compared to the metallic sound Shostakovich creates. My favorite Shostakovich symphony is the eleventh, describing another memorable year in Soviet history, "The Year 1905." It begins quietly and hauntingly mesmeric and ends in a blaze of mechanical intensity. In between come some of the most vividly brutal passages of music I know, music that evokes the horrors of war and death, of political regimes that bully artists into an arbitrary mold.

What makes great art is difficult to define at the best of times, as our recent blog exchanges have shown.

We might be forgiven after a quick reading of the New Testament to conclude that Paul was culturally grey! Paul's concern for unity and equality in Christ--the Galatians 3:28 point-of-view of there being neither Jew nor Greek... for we are all one in Christ--seems to be a cultural bulldozer, leveling all considerations of ethnic, civilizing distinctiveness so beloved by novelists, the BBC and cultural aficionados.

Paul and culture

One might think Paul was as content to eat porridge as haut cuisine. The gospel is the great leveler. It shows no interest at all in whether I'm "Essex man" or a son of Glyndwr, of whether I studied at a comprehensive in Lampeter or Eton college, or if I have an identifiable accent that is redolent of sophistication or conjures up thoughts of plebeian roots. But, as these exchanges show all too clearly, being a Christian does not erase all identity markers (English, Welsh, Laplander) any more that Paul's insistence that there is "neither male nor female" reduce us all to androgynous beings (despite a clearly discernible trend to do just that in our modern world). Vive la difference.

Paul can, however, discern what is true and honorable and lovely and excellent (Phil. 4:8) which makes one think that it is right to speak of arts and fine arts. We recognize them instinctively and put greater value (lasting value) on the poetry of Dante, Donne, Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, Eliot, and the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Bruckner, or the writings of Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Defoe, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. But what we have done is singled out artists with Christian leanings one way or another and there's nothing (or so it seems to me) that suggests that good art only comes from the minds and emotions of Christians.

On the contrary Christians are capable of appallingly bad judgments and poorly expressed artistic productions. Deliver us from the tyranny that suggests "Christian" art is good, "Non-Christian" art is bad. Who knows what we mean when we apply such labels. For good or ill (and it is often more ill than good), the doctrine of common grace frees us into perceiving "the good" (the noble, the enduring) in Mozart or Debussy, John Lennon, or Eric Clapton. It always catches me off-guard when I read Kuyper's tirade against the music of Claude Debussy (in the "Lectures on Calvinism"), as though impressionism were redolent of all that is wrong with the modern world! It is easy so why someone might make that case (the lack of clarity suggesting moral uncertainty, or something of the kind). But it is breathtakingly naïve. I remember listening to a lecture/sermon once given by a renowned twentieth century preacher (now deceased) in which he argued that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was "Christian" on the basis that it contained no discord. The idea of harmony suggested gospel creation as it should be, as God intended, and elements of discord suggested sin. The nonsense of such an analysis need not detain us now, but something of the same finds its way into many a Christian discussion where arbitrary factors suggest more or less Christian ideas.

Sarcasm and grotesquery

Listening to Shostakovich's symphonies is not easy to do, wrapped as his music is in emotional baggage that can quite literally drain the life away. As one reviewer said following a series of concerts given recently in commemoration of Shostakovich's centenary in which all his symphonies were played: "he wrote works in which sarcasm and grotesquery are hard to separate from nobility and pathos, base materials difficult to tell from the sublime; and the more keenly he felt political pressure -- Stalin's dirty thumb -- the more assiduously he doubled his meanings, put in jokes and let irony engulf all. His harmonies can be absurdly pert, his rhythms merely capricious and his melodies are more like deceptive simulacrums of a tune than the thing itself. One can feel it is only the architectonic aspect of composing that for him is not debased" (Paul Driver, "Maddened in Manchester" The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006).

Not all of Shostakovich's music is good. It can occasionally sound quite banal. Nor should we think of him as a hero of the dissident movement against socialist realism. He was a loyal patriot and Presidium member during the Brezhnev era. His struggles are just as much with himself as with Stalin's oppressive regime. He writes a mea culpa to Stalin in the Tenth Symphony. And he dies wearing all his State medals. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich went on to create one of his most important works - Symphony No. 13, Babi-Yar, for bass, bass chorus and orchestra. Written in 1962, this devastating critique of the Soviet system is based on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was the Khrushchev era and many had envisioned a different era had arrived rather than the Cold War which ensued.

Felix culpa!

Something essentially biblical and puritan emerges in Shostakovich: a sense of the brutality of this world. There is nothing saccharin about Shostakovich. Socialist realism was not an issue to trifle with. Life is hard and unrelentingly hostile to those whose point of view differs from the establishment. Like the puritans whose conscience forbade them the luxury of conformity, Shostakovich (while seeming to comply) wrote in irony much the same way as one imagines John did in writing the Apocalypse.

Out of the most brutal circumstance extraordinary good can emerge. Great literature, great art, great music! And therein lies a great lesson that the Bible reinforces again and again. That spiritual growth and vitality--the best things we ever do and say, emerge from the crucible of suffering and trial. The puritans knew this lesson well and often preached and wrote about it. Wrote John Geree, a seventeenth century English puritan, in his tract "The Character of an Old English Puritane or Noncomformist (1646)": "His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui patitur [he who suffers conquers]."

"Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice" C. S. Lewis wrote, and Christians of the past were not afraid to be reminded of it so long as it drew to live out-and-out for God as a consequence. I've no idea where Shostakovich stood spiritually, but his music reminds me of the frailty of this life and the need to live for Christ in a brutal, fallen world.

North American Christianity anaesthetizes itself with promises of ease and comfort for the faithful. Too much Christianity is concerned with personal pleasure where soothing syrup from preachers mollycoddles over-indulged Christians to expect the wrong things. Instead of preparing them for battle against the world, the flesh and evil, they are hoodwinked into the belief that pain and deprivation are the greatest obstacles to Christian vitality and growth. Nothing could be further from the truth: God tries us "in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10).

James MacMillan, one of today's leading Scottish composers, said back in the year 2000 (at a twenty-fifth commemoration of Shostakovich's death) referred to Shostakovich as "the public atheist who provides us with a scorching vision of the human soul". Pointing to the composer's "extraordinary double vision," MacMillan outlined a music that simultaneously embraces "the lyric and the grotesque, joy and irony, hope and despair; a music which holds a mirror up to the human condition" (See, Michael Tumelty, "At last, the score is settled" in Glasgow Herald October 30, 2000). Like the music of Shostakovich, some truths can only be heard in minor keys.

 

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