Dmitri Shostakovich: A tribute
by Jeffrey Dane
In the early 1970s, Russian (but then-Soviet) composer Dmitri Shostakovich was in New York enroute to a northwestern university to receive an award. Learning he was staying at the Hotel St.Moritz on Central Park South, I was determined to go there to meet this great composer. I had every confidence I'd be able, somehow, to arrange even a 5-minute personal greeting to him, even if only to shake his hand and tell him that my introduction to modern music was his own Fifth Symphony (still one of my favorite 20th-century works). Conjecture is fascinating but fruitless: unfortunately, I learned about his stay in New York only the day after he left.
We might wonder how we can "remember" someone we've never met. The difficulty disappears when we consider the man's work: he composed music which represents moments in one's personal "weather" that had a profound effect on the climate of many musical lives. It may seem paradoxical that I feel such a personal kinship with Shostakovich and his music without ever having had the opportunity to make his acquaintance -- but the kinship is there, and it's genuine: my experiences with Shostakovich through his music have been indirect but intense.
His contributions established him as the most significant 20th-century Russian composer (with the possible exception of Sergei Prokofiev), and brought Shostakovich early international renown. Invitations came from orchestras worldwide for him to play as soloist in his own piano works. His importance is of such magnitude that his career, like Aaron Copland's in America, became effectively an industry unto itself, even in foreign lands.
I was introduced to Shostakovich's music while still in school by two classmates: a pianist, Bruce Levy (now a psychiatrist), and by the concertmaster of the school orchestra, David Assael (a MIT graduate and engineer). As my friendship with both of them has continued for nearly five decades, so too has my bond with Shostakovich's music. Mr. Assael has been graced with the enviable circumstances of early retirement; Dr. Levy has the distinction of having met Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son and now an important conductor; and I have the comfort of knowing that on one occasion in the 1960s I shook hands and spoke with Aram Khachaturian.
Success and recognition came early to Shostakovich. Born in 1906, in his youth he was encouraged by the great Alexander Glazounov. Interestingly coincidental is that both composers wrote their first symphonies at age 19. Shostakovich's piece was written for and performed at his graduation ceremonies. That this early symphony, among his later ones, has entered the repertoire of major orchestras worldwide bespeaks a degree of substance for the man and his work that is unusual in the musical world.
Russian culture is as rich as its language. Its music, too, is as accessible to the world as the language is difficult for those who haven't spoken it from childhood. Even Shostakovich's name has strength and stability, in keeping with the magnitude and significance of his music. The thick, horn-rimmed glasses he wore throughout his life became as much a distinctive visual hallmark of Shostakovich as did the cigar, pipe, cigarette and the glass of Scotch in the hands of Johannes Brahms, Arthur Honegger, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky respectively.
When Gustav Mahler was composing his Eighth Symphony, he didn't have access to the singers' texts for the choral sections. He composed the music anyway, almost intuitively. It was providential that the texts ultimately fit his music almost perfectly. Some things happen instinctively: I seemed to learn as much about Shostakovich from the study of his music itself than by later reading of biographical information. The correlations were inexplicable but conspicuous. Aaron Copland, the dean of American composers, summed it up concisely when he said, "If it's in the music, it's in the man."
Shostakovich and Prokofiev were considered "Soviet" composers in their day but their music is Russian. When Prokofiev was expected to write music as instructed, he'd nod in agreement -- and then proceed to compose the kind of music he wished. Shostakovich was more practical: having fallen in and out of favor with the authorities, he had to be. According to recent tradition, Testimony, allegedly his personal memoir, was ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, smuggled out of what was then the Soviet Union and was published only in 1979, four years after the composer's death. The conjecture and debate about the memoir since its initial appearance continues even now.
In anticipation of his first visit to an English-speaking country, Shostakovich, already an adult, began studying English. His lesson notebooks reveal the diligence, earnestness and attention to detail that manifested itself in his own music.
During the 1950s a delegation of Russian composers, including Shostakovich, visited several music conservatories here in the USA. One of them was the Juilliard School in New York, where one of my teachers, Lawrence Widdoes, was studying at the time. The student body was told they may greet the Russian composers informally, as long as protocol was observed and that the illustrious visitors were treated with dignity and not molested. I asked my teacher if he had actually met Shostakovich. "I said 'Hello' to him in the hallway," my teacher told me. "He seemed surrounded by a green mist from the Russian cigarettes he was smoking."