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September 25, 2009

Some gentle music for Shostakovich's birthday

It's Shostakovich's 103rd birthday, so we've got to have musical commemoration.

It's also a drizzly Friday morning in Baltimore, so we could use a little lift. Oh yeah, and I somehow managed not to blog at all on Thursday -- despite having to participate that evening in a discussion on the joys of blogging with other local bloggers at a Baltimore Symphony pre-concert. That's, like, grounds for dismissal from the blogosphere, isn't it? I plead for mercy, even though it was all through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. I promise to be more diligent and faithful, and I'm hoping you'll be in a more forgiving mood if you get listen to something real, real purty.

Back to Shostakovich. No, I'm not going to offer something from his searing symphonies or concertos. This particular anniversary of the guy I consider the 20th century's Beethoven (want to make something of it??) calls for a warm and fuzzy choice, and possibly not as widely known -- the Romance from

his film score to a 1955 swashbuckler film called "The Gadfly."

I first heard it, as I suspect a lot of folks did, when it was used as the theme music for the gripping British TV series "Reilly, Ace of Spies" that came out in the early 1980s and was shown on PBS in the States.

I am sure that some folks would call this a send up of romantic music, not really a genuine attempt at it. But I find it irresistible and genuine. The piece seems to open up a disarmingly gentle, lyrical, less internally troubled side of Shostakovich. And, given the news headlines right now, from local terror plots to Iran's hidden nuclear facility, I figured gentle, lyrical and internally untroubled was just the ticket.

Here, then, a little birthday salute to a musical giant.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:33 AM | | Comments (3)


DSCH had a lot of talent, but, 'our' Beethoven? LvB was a revolutionary who changed music forever. Who left benchmark works in all genres.

Temirkanov gave us a lot of Schostakovitch - some thought it was too much. Many did.

The agony we hear expressed in his symphonies is difficult to bear at times. Nor did he do irony of sarcasm in music as well as Prokofiev. In fact, it took Testament to tell us that much of his stirring, 'heroic' music was written to mock the sentiments seemingly expressed.

Now, if he had lived anywhere but in Soviet Russia, we can only imagine what he might have written.

Thanks muchly for commenting. Not sure what you mean by 'our' Beethoven, but I do believe that in terms of quality and substance of output in all major genres -- Symphony, concerto, chamber, solo and one indisputably great opera -- Shosty was the Beethoven of the 20th century, creating substantial works that keep on giving. They challenge us, move us, even annoy us; they are not neutral. There is enough profundity in, say, his Viola Sonata alone to qualify him for greatness, and when you add in all those other works (there are certainly nine great symphonies out of his 15), I just think he rates way up there. No, he didn't change the course of music, but rather re-charged the tools of musical expression inherited from the 19th century in a distinctive, exceptionally powerful manner. But, hey, I don't expect anyone to agree with me. (And given the controversy surrounding 'Testament,' it probably should be used sparingly as a point-maker.) Thanks again for letting me have it. TS

Just as Chopin's music featured "cannons amid flowers," Shostakovich's music is full of exploding jack-in-the-boxes beneath (sometimes-bizarre and odd-smelling) bouquets. You will find absolutely no composer with a greater sardonic grin (at his most caustic, he's like Jack Nicholson's AND Heath Ledger's Jokers monster-mashed together!), and he wore it proudly through the vast majority of his output.

Indeed, I often find his strongest works _very_ difficult to approach if I'm not "in the mood," simply because he is so honest in his cynicism. Take the 8th symphony, for example: an absolutely _crushing_ work! It's the sequel to the scherzo from Bruckner's 9th symphony from stem to stern, and one will find _nothing_ of happiness in _that_ particular work. Dmitri actually manages to ratchet up the terrifying ghosts and malignant mechanizations to a fever pitch. And in its wake, this symphony leaves a despairingly-bleak wasteland. Only an absolute genius could paint such a picture. (The same can be said of Pettersson, who requires an even stronger stomach -- and exceptional conducting! -- in his darkest works. Yowza.)

I love several other of the man's symphonies (4th, 5th, 6th, 10th) and just can't _stand_ some others (11th, 12th, 15th -- though the last really depends on the conductor!). I find all of his concerti highly-enjoyable (and, on occasion, just as painful as the 8th).

Even more worthy of praise are the man's string quartets -- _all_ 15 of them. I constantly return to them for inspiration and, er, "grounding." Nothing will sober your perspective like Shosty and strings!!!

(And "Testament," while probably somewhat accurate, is of dubious authenticity -- I prefer to stick to Dmitri's letters and music to get a realistic picture of the man.)

Would I equate him to Beethoven? Absolutely! Both men left benchmark works in _all_ genres. Just because Shosty doesn't _sound_ like Ludwig shouldn't prevent him from joining the same echelon. And, for heaven's sakes, can we _please_ take LvB off of the untouchable perch already?!?!? Yes, he's fantastic, we know this, and if he had never lived, then we would have to _invent_ him. (I forget from where I'm paraphrasing that...) But the great man is _not_ the be-all, end-all of music, and he had _plenty_ of shortcomings. He has plenty of company, too, with the likes of Schubert, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Sibelius, et al -- and _definitely_ Shostakovich, too! LvB may be a titan amongst titans, but they're _all_ titans! (He just has the honour of being the first. Oh, wait a minute, I forgot WAM and JSB, and Moneteverdi, Palestrina, & Lasso... ;^)

Don't stop now. You were on a roll! TIM

Doug, although I'm a big fan of Shosty's music, here's where I part company with you on putting him in the same class as Beethoven:

1. Beethoven was a revolutionary who broke the musical mold of his time. Shosty was very creative and original in his use of well-established musical formats and idioms, but not an innovator.

2. Following on the first point, Beethoven left an enormous musical footprint, while Shosty has had minimal influence on the subsequent direction of music, and other composers in the Soviet Union considered him passe even while he was still alive and composing.

3. Beethoven's music is of a uniformly (or nearly uniformly) extremely high quality, Shosty's work was very uneven.

So Shostakovich was no Beethoven. But just being Shostakovich was in itself pretty darned good.


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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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