02 November 2018

No loss of enthusiasm

Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
Winston Churchill

[ text redacted, but flower petals, Movitone news, and night-blossoming fruit trees entered into it ]
– David Ossman, The Ronald Reagan Murder Case

I'm still jiggered that, when we look at Mars, we do not see the Mars of now, but the Mars of three minutes ago.
Porridger's Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Last night, my choir did fine with my 'sudden arrangement' of As We Gather at Your Table;  the tune was in fact new to them, so we laid in some time a-learning it.

In an online discussion this week, Jens Laurson raised the point that many have (in a word) pretended that Prokofiev and Shostakovich did not write film soundtracks, because that activity does not fit their image of A Serious Classical Composer.  Myself, the Kizhe and Nevsky suites have always been favorites;  so that in Shostakovich's case, I simply sought out and explored other genres first.  I sort of 'backed into' some of the film scores . . . difficult for me to report accurately at this remove, but perhaps I started with the music for the great Kozintsev Shakespeare films;  and (while there are many of his soundtracks still unknown to me, and – as Time is not an inexhaustible resource – I rather doubt that I should ever manage to hear all of them) I have listened to HamletKing LearNew BabylonAloneThe Fall of Berlin, and others.  Much of it is brilliant, all of it is at least good, and none of it is a discredit to the composer.

Perhaps the environment has changed substantially since, but when I was a student 35-ish years ago, one could read in the professional literature a lingering institutional disdain for Shostakovich, some combination of considering him little more than a musical Kremlin stooge, or – even regarded purely as an artist – unworthy of serious consideration.  A prejudice that most of his work was poor, and that even the best of his work was of only a niche interest.

Although I am nowhere near having heard all of his work, I have by now heard a great deal of it.  Has any of it been bad?  Not any of the film soundtracks that I have heard.  If pressed, probably the worst Shostakovich piece I know is the Twelfth Symphony.  Yet even this piece is technically flawless, it is competently constructed (and better than competently);  there are even those who feel it is their favorite of the 15 symphonies, and – while I do not revisit it as often as any of the other symphonies – I do not mind admitting that I enjoy it when I do listen.

The Song of the Forests is not his worst work, though the first I learnt of it was, people writing and poo-poo-ing it, some of them without having listened to it.

It would even be unfair (and arguably petulant) to castigate the Polka from The Golden Age as Bad Music, when it is designedly light music, serves its purpose brilliantly in context, and is in any event well made – and well made to its purpose.

One element in his œuvre which seemed to serve as a target for unsympathetic critics is, when a musical idea from an earlier piece would occasionally resurface in later works.  For example:  the dotted "French overture" rhythm from the opening of the Fifth Symphony, with which the (very different) opening of the Eighth resonates;  the "percolating percussion" of the second movement of the Fourth Symphony, which returns in both the Second Cello Concerto and the Fifteenth Symphony;  the slow, quiet harp tolling in the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, which is practically a quotation from one of the then-unpublished Opus 46 Pushkin Romances.

(Part of the story of Shostakovich, as I appreciate him, is that he lived in and endured the conditions of being a public composer, a composer in a fishbowl, but did his work always with an eye to making music for an individualindeed, for a friend.)

The facile, antagonistic view of this considers Shostakovich's practice here 'unimaginative,' as if it were 're-using old music' (supposing the composer incapable – or insufficiently capable – of generating fresh ideas).  In my ears, it is in fact both imaginative, in finding new facets, and in creating a new context, for the idea;  and intriguingly inviting to the sympathetic listener – does the idea mean something different here, and what may that difference be?

Often in the art of music, the question is of greater interest, and is more productive, than settling upon the elusive answer.

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