Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his fifth symphony at age 30 while Russia was under harsh Stalinist rule.

Sometimes music is for entertainment. Sometimes music is about something serious. In the third program of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season, we get the juxtaposition of both.

Debussy’s "Le Printemps," the concert overture, is a pretty piece prettily played. Composed six years before "Prelude to the 'The Afternoon of the Faun,'" "Printemps" foreshadows some of the later piece’s well-known features.

The first movement is a musical mosaic: phrases overlap in waves that occasionally build a bit of energy, but things always ebb back to a gentler place. Even the second movement, with its variations on a jaunty dance tune, resists the urge to musical sentences and climaxes more often than not.

If "Le Printemps" was pretty, then Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat for Two Pianos as performed Christina and Michelle Naughton was witty.

Goethe once described chamber music as a conversation between rational people. He was referring to string quartets, but the metaphor applies here as well to the dialogue between the piano parts as they cleverly call back and forth.

The two young pianists seemed to be enjoying their performance very much. The sibling performance echoed the fact that Mozart almost certainly composed the piece to play with his sister Maria Anna, also a gifted pianist and composer.

The tone of program shifted dramatically in turning to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, whose creation within fraught cultural and political circumstances is one of the great stories of modern music history. 

Composed after Shostakovich was reprimanded by the Stalinist regime for his scandal-filled opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," the symphony claims to be an act of musical contrition. Shostakovich subtitled it "The practical answer of a Soviet artist to justified criticism."

Accounts even of the first performance suggest, however, that many listeners have heard it as reflecting something more complex — not the glory of Stalin’s Soviet machine, but rather the human suffering caused by it.

I have always heard the piece as being about tyrannical power, about forces that overwhelm again and again without cease, never allowing the subject to rest.

Shostakovich was a master of musical tropes and idioms, the familiar tools by which western art music communicates structure, shape and meaningful content to its listeners. But in this piece he repeatedly turns those tropes against themselves, introducing and immediately complicating their meaning.

The very first theme of the first movement, for instance, can barely be thought of as a melody. Instead of giving us a guidepost to follow, it twists and wanders through large angular leaps, searching without finding any kind of musical ground.

Later in that same movement a few bars of sweet, major-key melody arrive with a promise of relief, but they are almost immediately subverted back into the musical maze from they emerged. Further on, an off-kilter march appears, its potential humor weighted down by the booming timpani, a menacing presence that recurs across the entire piece. 

Each movement has its characteristic style. The scherzo (second movement) is a waltz parody; the third is a searing lament; and the fourth is a bombastic conclusion. All of them shift and buckle in ways that defy listeners’ relaxation. We are always on edge.

The very ending of the piece seals in the omnipresence of overwhelming power. Many symphonies end with emphatic repetitions of the final chord, but here those repetitions go on an on, far longer than necessary, and they’re given shape by the final sounds of the thundering timpani.

It is power in excess, and it’s not triumphant, it’s terrifying.

Kudos to the MSO for its heart-wrenching performance. They followed the twists and turns — both musical and psychological — adeptly, and rendered the piece with terrible beauty.

I can’t account for maestro John DeMain’s choice to program this particular piece, this particular week. There’s no way to have known the political turmoil we’d be facing, but it feels resonant with the conversations our country is having about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how it is used.

Music sometimes provides shelter from the storm, but sometimes it helps us see the storm for what it is, and in that, we have a responsibility to see things as they are and make our choices accordingly.

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