SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 13, 'Babi Yar' (Ladislav Slovak/ Leopold Komárek/ Peter Mikulas/ Slovak Philharmonic Chorus/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550630)
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.13, Op. 113 'Babi Yar'
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the sonof an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showedsuch musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the PetrogradConservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied compositionwith the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studiesthrough the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, thedirector of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after thedeath of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his ownindifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as apianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony,was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed byperformances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As apianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International ChopinCompetition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with thetheatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musicalcollaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea andin film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose,based on Gogol,was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929,when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerfulproponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy arousedwas a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged withoutsuccess in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included asecond and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth
of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer NikolayLeskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title KaterinaIsmailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of hermerchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughlyacceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerousreverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony
and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to whichShostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justifiedcriticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed,allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet.
In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country andthe siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work hehad begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following theend of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled nowwith Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibitinganti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social andpractical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of hiscompositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was notperformed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony withhis Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad inDecember 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation,the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of theOctober Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the ThirteenthSymphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of therevised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title KaterinaIsmailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during whichhe suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer,with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity andlucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems byApollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and K??chelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, wasfollowed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The lastof his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his finalcomposition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op. 113,is in many ways a counterweight to its immediate predecessor, The Year 1917, a work morecalculated to win official approval. By 1962 various changes had taken place in Russia,with Khrushchev's attacks on Stalin, who had died in 1953. Khrushchev himself was oustedin 1963 and replaced by the more repressive government led by Brezhnev and Kosygin.
Nevertheless even under Khrushchev art was by no means free of the restrictive formulaethat had bound it under Stalin, coupled with the whim of the dictator. Symphony No.13began with the setting by Shostakovich of a single poem by the Ukrainian poet Yevtushenko,the son of parents exiled to Siberia and at this time a representative of the culture ofthe younger generation of Russians. In the controversial poem Babi Yar he had attacked antisemitism, which hadrecurred in a particularly open form during the last period of Stalin's rule and whichwas, in any case, endemic in Russia. By implication the poem attacked the cruel treatmentof all minorities or dissidents, of whom Jews might be seen as representative. Thesymphony was extended at the poet's suggestion, by the addition of settings of four morepoems, one of them, Fears, specially written.
The performance of the symphony, which took place on 18thDecember 1962 in Moscow under Kyril Kondrashin, was no easy matter. Yevtushenko's poem hadalready been subject to official criticism. It was suggested that other victims of the warshould be included in the lament for Babi Yar andthat, in a word, the poem was unpatriotic. By December Stalinists in the establishment haddone their utmost to prevent the performance of the symphony. Bass soloists were forced towithdraw and every device of official disapproval was attempted, although overt banning ofeither poem or symphony would have been politically unwise, in view of the reputation thatboth poet and composer now enjoyed outside Russia. The symphony was performed on twooccasions, before the direct intervention of the official censors, which removed the workfrom Russian repertory for the next decade. It was first performed in the West in 1970 inPhiladelphia under Eugene Ormandy.
Babi Yar is a ravine near thecentre of Kiev, where 150,000 men, women and children, mainly Jews, were slaughtered underthe Nazis, who occupied the region for tw