Missed Music

Music you didn’t know you needed…until now.

Evocative and stirring 20th century classical from Dmitri Shostakovich

I’m going to go way back today. I think this is the oldest thing I have recommended, with the exception of some of the stuff I put in my American Songbook mix.  I was watching an old episode of Cosmos last night (Yeah, I loved that Carl Sagan series. It made a big impression on me as a kid.) and heard an excerpt of the first movement of Shotakovich’s Eleventh Symphony among the soundtrack music. I bought the whole symphony as a teenager and have loved it ever since.

Leopold. Leopold! Leopold! L-L-L-Leopold.

Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer who lived his entire adult life during the Soviet Era. He became famous when Trotsky was in power, but had a rocky relationship with the Stalin regime. His music was actually officially denounced twice (1936 and 1948) and his music was banned periodically. But he also received a Lenin Prize and even served in the Supreme Soviet. Interesting fellow.

A lot of 20th century composers lose me. In their desire not to tread the same ground as Classical and Romantic composers, they wrote atonal music or music structured to interest mathematicians more than laymen. Shostakovich played around with scales and modes and arrhythmic percussion, but the effect was always beautiful or dramatic, never cacophonous, at least to my ear.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is about Bloody Sunday, when the Tsar’s guards opened fire into a crowd of protestors, killing 96 and injuring hundreds. There is a wonderful recording of this being performed by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of none other than Leopold Stokowski. It’s the best recording of Shostakovich’s Eleventh I’ve ever heard.

In particular, I want to describe the first two movements. Here are links to a different performance, but I thought it was better to link you to a longer sample, rather than 30 seconds of my favorites.

  • The Palace Square (Adagio) – This movement is so beautiful, but seething and ominous. You can almost see the fog drifting around the Palace Square as it starts. It oozes around like this for 5 ½ minutes before flutes introduce a pretty melody that we hear again and again, but the undercurrent of minor chord strings and brass keeps it menacing.
  • The 9th of January (Allegro) – As this movement opens, we hear the unrest of the people. Their anger at the government’s inefficiency and corruption drives them to descend on the Palace in great numbers. The first half is so exciting my breath still catches as I listen to it. The second half of this movement sounds to me like the reaction of the government. It’s brooding at first, but it builds quickly with frantic strings and trombone glissandos that give way to staccato snare drums and xylophone. The whole orchestra blares the gruesome horror of the massacre itself before all fall suddenly quiet and we’re left with an eerie, tremulous echo of the first movement depicting the aftermath. Whew.

The second half of this symphony is beautiful and dramatic as well, but the first half is my favorite. People have criticized Shotakovich’s Eleventh, calling it “a film score without the film.” Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with music so evocative and appropriate that it clearly depicts its subject matter. It’s not subtle, but then neither am I so this appeals to me.

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January 7, 2010 - Posted by | Classical

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