Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Art of Cultural Prejudice

Dmitri Shostakovich, by Tom Mallon
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1907-1975)

Unconscious Exclusion

When I first started to collect musical recordings as a boy, Shostakovich was far from the top of my list. However, over the years the collection began to fill out and I began to purchase the works of composers I was less familiar with. I would start with symphonic, move to chamber and then operatic. 

The collection of orchestral and chamber would normally begin with Germanic, while operatic seemed to naturally develop from Italian. Aside from the usual Tchaikovsky classics, I seemed to have some mental block towards Russian repertory.  

Hidden Treasures

Finally having completed most of my Italian operas, I turned to German opera. There were not a lot of surprised, as I had heard most of the German works on the radio, through friends or at concerts. The next move was to French operas. I was pleased to discover these unfamiliar and largely unperformed works to be a far richer and robust repertory than I had imagined. 

My friends associated with music as well as music store sales people provided a host of explanations as to why Italian and German works saw the stage more often. However, over time it became clear these operas were ignored simply because they were French. After experiencing Massenet, Bizet, Gounod and others, I could not help but feel precious gems had been sweep beneath some type of cultural rug. 

Collection Guides
As time went on, I found myself being lured towards the unfamiliar. It seemed everything that wasn’t popular was as good and sometimes better than the popular. Uncovering different works became exciting as well as fulfilling. My French operas expanded to include Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Charpentier, Debussy and more. What a treat! When I would discuss my new additions with friends that had similar musical interests they were often times unfamiliar with my discoveries. 

Turning to collection guides and reference books, writers would usually poo-poo them for being obscure, difficult to sing, clunky or too expensive too perform. I found myself questioning these notions, as the same could be said for many Italian and German works dominating the stage. It almost seemed to be a conspiracy. 

Rimsky-Korsakov: Ivan the Terrible

Turning Point

However, it wasn’t until I ventured into Russian opera that my ears were truly opened. For centuries the West had either ignored or criticized Russian opera. Based upon existing prejudices of music writers and record salesmen, the repertory had numerous issues. Russian appeared a difficult language, librettos were often times referred to as boring, they had long run times, etc. 

Again, I found the same criticisms could be applied to many operas popular in the West. However, the criticism that seemed most unfair, even cruel, was that Russian operas were ultimately based upon folk tunes and that those folk references somehow made them inferior. 

I was some 25 or 30 years into collection at this point, and this was to be the greatest lesson in music appreciation I would experience. Aside from Tchaikovsky, whose training and influences had western influences, the roots of most other Russian composers like Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky were indeed folkish. However, folkish doesn’t necessarily dictate performance by an organ grinder with a trained monkey. These composers had, as with Dvorak’s New World Symphony, taken folk sources to an entirely new level. 

I began to fall in love with this incredibly rich repertory, but regularly defending the works by criticizing western notions of their inferiority. Why had American and British musicologists, lecturers and musical directors ignored or shown distain for these works? Aside from deliberate neglect during the Cold War, I could not qualify a single reason. However, the trend would continue against other eastern works

Richard Strauss by Tom Mallon
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Beautiful Inconsistencies

I was a huge fan of Richard Strauss in my teens and early twenties. Few music lovers complain about Strauss for being inconsistent as he jumped from the deliciously modern and dissonant Elektra to a nostalgically romantic and gorgeous Rosenkavalier, composing both operas within two years. Instead, Strauss is quite correctly referred to as diverse

Many years later I would overcome prejudice and stumble upon Shostakovich. By this time in my collecting there is almost no composer I would not embrace, even if some initial patience was required. However, there can be no doubt I had put Shostakovich off because of prejudicial influences. Of all composers whose work I have learned to love over the years, I can say without reservations that Shostakovich has been the most maligned by critics. Unlike Richard Strauss’s diversity, Shostakovich is inveritably referred to as either inconsistent or a knockoff. Pierre Boulez’s remark that Shostakovich was a “...second or even third pressing of Mahler” would seem to dismiss evolving influences, even though the same could be said of Schubert, Brahms and countless earlier composers for having modeled their works after Beethoven. However, this remark by Boulez, a great musician in his own right, simply demonstrate’s the 20th century’s obsession with market-driven uniqueness, even at the cost of substance. 

Igor Stravinsky by Tom Mallon
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

The Inevitable Comparison

Shostakovich’s work is often times compared to his world renowned contemporary, Stravinsky. Even when seemingly positive similarities are drawn, the outcome is always unfair to Shostakovich and inevitably slants favorably towards Stravinsky’s unique genius for innovation. Both composers lived and composed in different worlds. For clarification sake, they could have even been from different planets. Dimitri Shostakovich lost income, position and prestige as well as being publicly humiliated by simple-minded government criticism for not composing for the masses or, more accurately, the proletariat ear. 

Conversely, this same criticism would then be redirected by western critics to describe Shostakovich’s musical works as socialistic formulations and therefore less than great. Would the West have had a higher opinion if he had cut off his ear or shot himself and thereby shortened his career? What bullshit! By comparison, the Paris and New York based Igor Stravinsky dealt with none of these pressures. 

The Moderato from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

Large Body of Work

Shostakovich works include soundtracks which he composed as a source of income. He was also required to produce conservative compositions written for general audiences. He was continually in a position to compose these concert pieces to reinstate himself within a musical establishment controlled by the Soviet Party. Lastly, there was a third and separate volume of unpublished work he simply relegated to his desk drawer. This latter volume of work would not begin to emerge until after Stalin and his purges left the stage. 

Joseph Staling by Tom Mallon
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)
Like Beethoven, Shostakovich proved his diversity by composing what became largely successful volumes of chamber, symphonic and operatic work, along with soundtracks as incidental music. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the diversity and continually enjoy listening to it all of his works. Also, since a large portion of his work was not performed, he was forced to composed in a vacuum without the luxury of non-politically motivated reviews or audience feedback. It must have been like writing in some cave on a desert island.

By the late 40’s, after almost a decade and a half of public denunciations, Shostakovich was known to chain smoke outside his apartment, so as to not wake his sleeping family, should the secret police arrive at his home to arrest him (Shostakovich lost Sofiya Varzarm, his mother-in-law and an astronomer, during the Great Purge). How many of history’s great composers could have maintained Shostakovich’s level of creativity and output in such an environment? Would the critics that panned Shostakovich have continued writing columns under similar conditions? 

WWII Shostakovich in the Leningrad Fire Brigade
There can be little doubt that Shostakovich’s music would have been different if, like Stravinsky, he had cut all ties and left the Soviet Union at an early age and again, like Stravinsky, emerged himself within the avant-garde to be idolized as a rebellious star. He certainly proved himself to be capable early on. His work came to the attention of the world famous German conductor Bruno Walter when he was only 19 years of age

However, no one has yet convinced me his music would have been better if he had left for the West. His output may have even been less. We will simply never know. Today, after years of familiarizing myself with most of his reparatory, I would be willing to go toe to toe with any persisting critic and argue his work to be no less than genius, even as it remains uniquely Russian. 

"Horses" by Vasily Golubev (1962)

Tearing Down Walls

The works of 20th century Russian painters can easily be compared to Shostakovich and his art. They may not have been avant-garde or different for the sake of difference, yet this mountain of recently embraced Russian paintings are today considered great works of neoimpressionism. Many of these paintings done during the Stalin years bring in some of the highest and most sustained auction prices ever experienced in the West.

We each have to decide on what prejudicial walls to tear down. Audiences are made up of unique individuals with their own separate tastes and not paid critics who wish to prove a point, promote a philosophy or sell a book. By contrast, these critics are merely signposts, and road markers can oftentimes be ignored when one is in discovery mode. Time remains the ultimate judge for all art, and I have no doubt Shostakovich’s works will be enjoyed for many generations to come.

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