By Request: Shostakovich 5

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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)(Photo: Gosconcert)

“Classical 101: By Request” is Heard Fridays From 1-3 PM.

When the definitive book on Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work is written, it will be one fantastic story. That we can piece together so few truths about a composer of the 20th Century-of living memory to many people-is tragedy. It will take years-decades-to sort through the propaganda, mixed with criticism and publicly expressed opinion, to distill the life of this giant.

Shostakovich was well established in the mid 1930s, with three symphonies, chamber music and an opera, The Nose, to his credit.  Conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter knew his work and played his music in Milan, Berlin, and New York.  But when, in 1937, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk fell afoul of  Soviet officialdom (Stalin walked out of a performance), the composer’s life changed overnight,  from star to pariah. He became a non-person.

The Symphony No. 5 was called “A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.”‘ This remark is now thought apocryphal, but there’s no mistaking the blood and the passion in this music:

Yevgeny Mravnisky conducted the world premiere in 1937.

Leonard Bernstein appeared in Moscow and Leningrad with the New York Philharmonic in 1958. The Soviets discouraged programming any of Shostakovich’s music. Lenny, red flag to a bull, brought the Fifth Symphony. He also demanded that the composer be brought on stage for the performances.

This symphony has lamentation, military marches, weeping strings, and is nothing but emotion. What a wonderful choice for our Friday playlist-it is a forty minute autobiography of a composer, cornered.

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