This summer came a CD release which — with all respect to the major classical music forces involved — is the kind of project I wish we wouldn't do.
This was a Deutsche Grammophon recording, Andris Nelsons conducting his Boston Symphony in two Shostakovich works, the Tenth Symphony and the Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Misensk, packaged unitl the title Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow.
And it all seems so thoughtful, so serious. And so connected to the larger world.
The new recording initiative will focus on works composed during the period of Shostakovich's difficult relationship with Stalin and the Soviet regime— starting with his fall from favor in the mid-1930s and the composition and highly acclaimed premiere of his Fifth Symphony, and through the premiere of the composer's Tenth Symphony, one of the composer's finest, most characteristic orchestral works, purportedly written as a response to Stalin's death in 1953.
That's from DG's press release, which I received by email. But the problem — and, really now, how obvious is this, once you think about it? — is that not many people care.
And I say that even though I care (though see below), because I'm a Communist history buff, and Stalin fascinates me. I'm eager to read the first 900-page book in Stephen Kotkin's new three-volume biography.
But out in the wider world, do many other people care? Of course they don't. Stalin — and much less Shostakovich's life under his rule — aren't active topics of discussion. They're history, not part of our present life.
So why do we in classical music keep trotting them out, in performances, discussions, recordings, even in theater presentations built around musical performances?
I think it's because we're looking for relevance. We want to reach outside our bubble, and connect to larger things. And to more people.
But Stalin won't do it. In fact, I think the mere mention of him only shows how stuck we are in the past. Underlines this. Shouts it to the world.
And so we ought to stop. No more Shostakovich and Stalin.
And, while we're at it, let's retire some of our other unconvincing steps toward relevance:
- No more about Brahms and the Schumanns (which quite a part from no one outside classical music caring, is at best a minor-league love story).
- No more Dvořák in America.
- No more Shakespeare and music. (Even though Shakespeare is wonderful, and relevant for theater companies to perform. Or they can make it so. But when, for the thousdandth time, we bring forth our long-dead composers and show how Shakespeare inspired them, we'ree going backwards.
All we do, by stressing these tired stories — over and over — is…well, I said it. We just show the world how fixated we are on the past.
[ADDED LATER] I'm not saying we won't attract a few more people with these programs. There's always someone who'll be interested, or who'll be drawn by the thought of something new, or something unusual in classical music, especially if we do these themes with theater, or some other nontraditional format. But we'll never break out of our bubble with these things. We'll never have any wide appeal.
So enough! Let's connect ourselves to things that people care about today.
And on the subject of Shostakovich and the Communist regime (since Soviet history is something I know a bit about) I'll explain in my next post how we miss the real story in our Shostakovich/Stalin presentations. How complex it all is, and how fascinating. And how many opportunities we miss — if we're going to go there — to really bring the history alive.
Original Content: Enough of this