A Sign of the Times
Why do I have a jaunty Petula Clark song from 1966 in my head?
Because I’m writing about how the music we play is never just music. It’s always a sign of the times. It reflects the times when it was written. It tells us something about those times. And, I hope, something about our own times, too.
But I’m not here to talk about Pet Clark.
I’m here to talk about Dmitri Shostakovich.
And Vladimir Putin.
As I write this, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is still raging and the Ukrainians are still putting up gallant resistance. By the time you read this, who knows what will have happened. I’m hoping there’s still a Ukraine to be reading about.
And here we are, performing the DPO’s fifth Masterworks Series program, “April Fools and Geniuses”. Ironic, I guess.
Some background… As my friends and family would tell you, if you had to pick the four-letter word that best describes me, it would be “goof”. April Fools’ Day is one of my favorite days of the year. I generally don’t go around trying to fool people, but I love to spend the day second-guessing everything I read or hear, trying to figure out what’s serious and what’s somebody’s idea of a joke.
And April 1 is my absolute favorite day to play a concert. There’s lots of great, fun music out there suitable for April Fools’ Day. So a couple of years ago, when we were looking at the 21-22 calendar and I saw we had possible concert dates on April 1 and April 2, I said, “Please, please, please, let’s make that a Masterworks Concert weekend.”
"April Fools and Geniuses” opens with a favorite piece from childhood…Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, by Richard Strauss. My parents had an LP of the piece. It wasn’t just the music. Someone on the record (it might have been Peter Ustinov) told the German folk talke of a teenaged troublemaker’s chaos-causing pranks and escapades. I was enchanted. Still am. It’s the perfect April Fools’ piece.
After Till comes young American pianist Aleksandra Kasman playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. It’s a magnificent work—beautiful, thrilling, awe-inspiring. And Sasha is such a wonderful musician that some of you in the audience will even forgive her for choosing to pursue her doctorate at “That School Up-North”!
Till Eulenspiegel is an “April Fool” of the program’s title, and Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff are both geniuses. After intermission comes Dmitri Shostakovich, who’s both. An April Fool and a genius.
In these strange and dangerous times, we find ourselves playing Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. “Ninth Symphony” sounds pretty imposing, right? Makes you think of Beethoven, “Ode to Joy”, triumph, fireworks, celebration.
When Shostakovich sat down to write his “No. 9” in August of 1945, he knew precisely what was expected of him. He had written two massive defiant symphonies in the middle of World War II—music which had galvanized the Soviet people (and their European and American allies) in the fight against Hitler. Now, with Nazis defeated, his job as a Soviet composer was to write a triumphant victory symphony that would out-Ninth Beeethoven’s. Something BIG, with orchestra, chorus, and soloists, all praising Stalin, who had led the Allies to victory.
That’s not what Shostakovich wrote.
Instead, he wrote a snarky, sarcastic piece worthy of Till Eulenspiegel himself. It’s not Shostakovich’s grandest symphony. It’s his shortest. The whole thing is two minutes shorter than the first movement of his epic, career-making, possibly world-saving “Leningrad Symphony”. There’s no triumph. There’s no celebration. There’s no paean to Stalin. The climax is a mournful bassoon soliloquy—like someone walking through the ruins of a devastated city—followed by a jaunty peasant tune that morphs into a bombastic, terrifying march, and a Keystone-Kops finale.
Stalin must have been pissed! Shostakovich was supposed to play along with his bosses’ expectations. His answer: “I’m done playing along. Leave me alone.” Lucky for him, Shostakovich was a national hero, and relatively safe from political reprisals.
And here we are, 75-plus years later, playing this piece as Putin’s forces continue their barbaric invasion of Ukraine. A sign of the times from 1945 appears on our concert program as a sign of the times for 2022. I’m sure Putin would love for some composer to write him a victory symphony. I hope he gets a Shostakovich to write him another “Shostakovich Nine”. He’s earned it.