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Decoding Shostakovich

Alexei Ratmanksy's Concerto DSCH is a fitting tribute to the Soviet composer's style

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Concerto DSCH is the second ballet Alexei Ratmansky made for NYCB, following 2006’s Russian Seasons; its premiere in May of 2008 coincided with his retirement from the directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet after a productive though often tumultuous four years. In the midst of choreographing DSCH, Ratmansky was rehearsing with the Bolshoi for the premiere of his reconstruction of Flames of Paris, a full-length ballet inspired by the music of the French Revolution and a favorite of Stalin’s in its original incarnation. The concurrence of these two wildly different works—in contrast with Flames’s four-act narrative and period costumes, DSCH is plotless and features brightly color-blocked tunics and bodysuits from American designer Holly Hynes—corresponds to the multi-layered, often contradictory nature and history of DSCH’s score: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Shostakovich’s First Symphony premiered in his native city, then known as Leningrad, in 1926, when the composer was only 19 years old, and just as Stalin was solidifying his position in the Communist Party and preparing to succeed Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union. The timing was consequential, as Shostakovich’s career would come to be defined as much for his music as for his deeply complicated relationship with the regime. Though his first three symphonies garnered a certain degree of professional respect and some critical acclaim, displeasure with the experimentation and “grotesque” qualities of his work defined its popular reception. His first opera, The Nose, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, marked an early nadir for the young composer with its near-universal dismissal as “incomprehensible.” 

His political troubles began in earnest in January of 1936, following the wildly successful debut of his second opera, Lady MacBeth of the Mtensk District. The morning after Stalin and a number of government officials attended a performance of the opera at the Bolshoi, an infamous editorial appeared in Pravda, then the official Communist Party newspaper in the Soviet Union, titled “Muddled Instead of Music.” In no uncertain terms, the editorial condemns both the content and style of Lady MacBeth:

From the very first moment of the opera the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing. … At the same time that our critics… swear by the name of Socialist Realism, in Shostakovich’s work the stage presents us with the coarsest naturalism.

Though to today’s Western readers such a critique might appear to be simply a record of a pseudonymous critic’s displeasure with a contemporary piece of challenging musical theater, at the time it signaled—and was immediately recognized as signaling—the government’s potentially fatal disapproval.

Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, and Joaquín De Luz in an excerpt from Concerto DSCH

Shortly thereafter, in a second Pravda editorial titled “Balletic Falsity,” Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream—the third and final ballet he would compose, and a work Ratmansky staged early in his career, to critical acclaim—came under similar attack, having failed to accurately portray life on a collective farm through its neglect of “folk songs, games, and dances that would have contributed authenticity to the ballet.” Though he escaped the horror dealt to his co-librettist Adrian Piotrovsky, who was sent to a gulag for his contributions to The Bright Stream, Shostakovich was made to publicly renounce his previous works as regressively bourgeois and “formalist,” and his Fourth Symphony, which critic-friend of the composer Isaac Glikman described as “devilishly difficult,” was suspiciously withdrawn from its debut shortly thereafter.

In the years that followed, Shostakovich struggled to remain in the regime’s good graces; while his Fifth Symphony was an unprecedented success, each new work threatened to revive the “formalist” critique, and the uncertainty kept the composer on the Party podium, repudiating his own—and others’—”Western,” petit bourgeois works. Then the Second World War broke out, and in the midst of the cacophony of constant air raid sirens, he composed his triumphant Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony. In its immediate embrace by the public and government alike, the symphony became a sort of wartime anthem; despite the difficulties of mustering a sufficient number of musicians, it was performed in August 1942 and subsequently broadcast on loudspeakers throughout Moscow. Shostakovich apparently confided to a young neighbor and friend, Flora Litvinova, that the symphony addressed Fascism more broadly, and not just the National Socialism against which the Soviets were fighting; indeed, she recalls him saying, “This music is about terror, slavery, the bondage of the spirit”—about “any totalitarianism,” implying the inclusion of that under which he was himself laboring. Thus within what was perhaps his most-heard work, a very public celebration of his government, Shostakovich had hidden a deeply personal critique. 

Shostakovich’s career continued apace, vacillating between remarkable, increasingly international success and governmental reproval; then, in March of 1953, Stalin died. By December of that year, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony premiered, and with it his “musical monogram:” D, E-flat, C, B-natural, or in the German pitch names, D, Es, C, H—D. Sch., corresponding to the German transcription of the initials of his first and last names. The 10th is one of Shostakovich’s most performed works, and though many have interpreted its grim tone and in particular the violent second movement as a portrait of Stalin and the horrors of his rule, Shostakovich was famously mysterious on the subject (notwithstanding the assertions of a deeply controversial, contested Shostakovich “memoir” written by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov). With Stalin gone, the composer strictly maintained the Party line; as he told friend and fellow composer Edison Denisov, “the times are new, but the informers are old.” 

And so, in 1956, Shostakovich, while toiling away at his 11th Symphony, paused to compose his Second Piano Concerto, op. 102. Completed in February of 1957, Shostakovich wrote to Denisov that it was a work with “no redeeming artistic merits,” though as with everything he has reportedly said, it’s up to the reader to interpret the sincerity and ultimate “meaning” of such a statement. The Concerto’s premiere that May marked the concert debut of Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son, then in his final year of study at the Central Music School of Moscow—and Maxim's 19th birthday. The piece is often considered an example of an established subgenre of Soviet music, the ‘Youth’ concerto, comprised of pieces written for students in the nation’s outsized, governmentally-subsidized school system; this goes some way toward explaining its supposed “cheerful” quality. The Second Piano Concerto is also one of a number of pieces Shostakovich wrote specifically for his family; for example, his Children’s Notebook collects together seven piano pieces he wrote for his daughter, Galina. 

The Concerto’s first movement, Allegro, opens with a driving, alternatively playful and insistent march, and quickly introduces a short, repetitive melody played by the piano that recalls the ever-familiar “Drunken Sailor” sea shanty. Throughout the work, the canny listener will discover such references, including, in the third movement, passages that sound remarkably like famous piano practice exercises by the French composer Charles Louis-Hanon. In addition, the piece is known to contain inside jokes that only Shostakovich’s close relations would recognize as such, in keeping with the coded quality of so much of the composer’s work. For what has been considered a rather “light” if popular piece, the Concerto is, in some ways, a moving incarnation of Shostakovich’s particularly ambiguous, if not downright schizophrenic, style of musical communication; rather than a “simple” piece, it is, instead, a piece about simplicity. 

An excerpt from Concerto DSCH

The first movement may also sound familiar to young music-and-movie fans, as it serves as the soundtrack for one episode in the animated film Fantasia 2000: that of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, and featuring a one-legged toy soldier who woos, notably, a ballerina. 

Ratmansky’s ballet capitalizes on the free-wheeling quality of the piece, with swiftly shifting combinations and sequences of pure, formal dance interrupted by everyday, informal movements. While working through the choreography prior to its premiere, Principal Dancer Ashley Bouder said of Ratmansky, “He takes the classic techniques to extremes.” And yet, the overall sense of the ballet is one of youthful amusement and a spirited, communal delight in dance.

Acute, demanding art combined with mimetic, everyday play: the ballet’s sense of eclecticism reflects the composer’s own interest in blending sources, his “signature” style of combining cultural references both high and low. And alongside these recognized references, speaking, that is, through others’ works—Shostakovich’s actual, coded signature, DSCH, the ultimate symbol of his constant ambivalence between allowed artistic production and personal expression.

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